Reprinted from the Winter 2017 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.
By the time you receive this winter 2017 edition of the Bulletin, the tumultuous and unsettling year of 2016 will be history. Here at the home office, we’re looking forward to the challenges and opportunities 2017 is certain to bring. Paradoxically, writing for one’s livelihood in some ways has never been harder (it’s harder to earn money as a freelancer, harder to get decent book advances, and the work of marketing and promotion falls more and more on authors’ shoulders) or easier (anyone can publish online, and any author can directly reach her readers). One indelible lesson of the year: in this age of false news generated in 140-character bites, writing book-length works is more important than ever.
Through the history of the printed word, all great societies have one thing in common: they have valued their writers. Writers help us understand our world better, both our present and our past; books help us assemble truths from contemporary culture and from history and they guide us into our future. They tell us who we are, and who we can be. As writers of both fiction and nonfiction, you—all of you—introduce new ideas into the culture and give us new language to discuss and debate them; you tell the stories and provide the information that helps us both understand ourselves and relate better to others. Your books help make sense of our collective experience. They make us think. It is troubling that present-day America seems to be increasingly indifferent to the importance of writers, and, I fear, we are already seeing the results.
Our founders understood just how important books were to the new system of government they created. They believed that a government “of and for the people” works only if the people are educated about the issues of the day so they can make rational decisions in their civic lives. As James Madison said (in a quote inscribed on the Madison Building of the Library of Congress):
Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: and a people who mean to be their own Governours, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
The founders recognized that to be successful, a democracy needs an informed citizenry, and to ensure that its people were sufficiently informed, the United States needed its own class of writers, thinkers, and artists, not beholden to government or private patronage. (It’s hard to imagine, but there were few published American writers at the time, in large part because the copyright protection afforded by the colonies was so new.) And so our founders enshrined copyright law in the Constitution, specifically to ensure that authors would always have a federal right to earn money from their writing.
There are times, even in a democracy, when writers have a particularly important role to play; and this appears to be one of those times. As Thomas Friedman says in his new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations:
Our democracy can work only if voters know how the world works, so they are able to make intelligent policy choices and are less apt to fall prey to demagogues, ideological zealots, or conspiracy buffs who may be confusing them at best or deliberately misleading them at worst. As I watched the 2016 presidential campaign unfold, the words of Marie Curie never rang more true to me or felt more relevant: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
Now, we find ourselves in the “post-truth” era, where “truth” can be fabricated by zealots, candidates, politicians, and even other countries trying to influence our political discourse, and then spread like wildfire through the channels of social media. What does that mean for our near and long-term future? How can we fight back?
Writing has always been and remains an utterly effective way to fight against untruths. If falsehood is a way to subjugate, then critical thinking is a path to freedom. Being able to distinguish fact from falsehood is an essential tool for citizens in a democracy, and writing and reading are the foremost ways to teach the critical thinking tools necessary to make these judgments.
Today as much as ever (and maybe more so given the recent uptick in fake news, misinformation, and the tendency to find ourselves in information silos), our citizenry needs the full access to truth that only writers—of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry alike—can provide.
Here at the office we’ve been doing what we can to make sure you can keep doing your job in an optimal environment. As part of the Copyright Alliance’s Transition Working Group, for example, we’ve been working to ensure that the President-Elect’s transition team has information about the best candidates for copyright-related posts—individuals who understand the importance of allowing authors to decide when, how and at what price their works are distributed by others, as well as to ensure that the incoming administration realizes the importance of creators to our economy and their need for protection.
We continue to work with Congress on legislation that will help creators and authors specifically, including the creation of an independent Copyright Office that will promote authors’ rights, the creation of a small claims copyright court to resolve infringement claims inexpensively and efficiently (the need for which any author who has had to give up a claim of infringement because of the cost of litigation will readily understand), and to address the threats the creative industries face from digital piracy. In addition, we are gaining ground and allies in our efforts to educate lawmakers about the realities and dangers of continuing to allow supersize tech platforms to reap the bulk of the financial benefits from creative content.
As for your part, in today’s culture of misinformation your work is more important than ever. So please keep writing. Own your voice. Fight back by letting the truths in your stories, poems and essays speak for themselves.
Mary Rasenberger , Executive Director