“The dubious privilege of a freelance writer is that he’s given the freedom to starve anywhere.”
Greetings to members and friends of the Authors Guild,
I’m delighted and not a little terrified to assume the presidency of the Authors Guild. I wanted to first thank all of you who voted for me, and to assure everyone that your bottles of WhistlePig’s Finest Rye Whiskey are in the mail.
I’d like to talk about the survey the Guild recently conducted, which showed a dramatic decline in authors’ income over the past decade. You probably read about the results, but more to the point, many of you are living the results. I acutely remember my impecunious years as a struggling writer, where I lived by Perelman’s dictum and hoped that someone besides my mother would start buying my books. But I always believed the marketplace was reasonably fair and that my books would eventually find an audience. If I were starting out today, however, I seriously wonder whether I would have made it as a writer. It’s entirely possible that in today’s publishing environment my books would not have found an audience, perhaps not even a publisher or agent. Since you can’t starve forever, I would have eventually gone into another career. Thirty-five books would not have been written. While some of them I wish never had seen the light of day, there were at least a few good ones I’d be sorry to see vanish.
I call this the censorship of the marketplace—books that weren’t written because the authors got discouraged and went off to become hedge-fund managers or mushers in Alaska. The censorship of the marketplace is a grave problem. It stifles the voices of writers from marginalized or disadvantaged communities. It silences writers who have unusual, unpopular or subversive ideas. It discourages experimentation by literary authors and poets. It deters nonfiction authors from writing the kinds of monumental books that require years of research and reporting. Today, many writers are struggling. Some of you might counter that writers have always struggled to make a living. This is true. But in former days, a writer of talent, energy and ideas was fairly sure of making at least a small living; today those writers can’t make a living at all. This kind of censorship is invisible, but it degrades the free and vigorous flow of ideas on which American democracy depends and it impoverishes our literary culture.
Why is this happening? Roxana Robinson, a former Guild president, put it to me in conversation quite vividly: Authors are facing their own climate change disaster. In her metaphor, the book market is a kind of ecology that is undergoing rapid and catastrophic change and in which authors are collateral damage. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
My top priority at the Authors Guild is to address the decline in authors’ income. This is a complex and difficult problem, with many causes and no simple solutions. The Guild is dealing with it on many specific fronts. To give a few examples: We’re attacking piracy and working to change laws that protect pirates and the internet platforms that provide them with a safe haven. We’re working with publishers to change unfair contract terms such as over-use of deep discount clauses. We’re advocating a public lending right, which all European countries and most of the developed world have adopted, in which authors receive small payments from the library lending of their books. We’re attacking the fake legal theory called “controlled digital lending,” which some entities use to justify the copying of authors’ books without payment or permission. We’re pushing back against the “information wants to be free philosophy” adopted by internet platforms and their fellow travelers, which devalues creative content of all kinds. We are working with Amazon to resolve individual authors’ problems and curtail the number of scam, fake, plagiarized and pirated books in their online and secondary print marketplaces. We’ve helped write legislation that will establish a copyright small claims court so authors, musicians and artists can sue copyright thieves without having to hire a lawyer—and win up to $30,000. We sued a major group of copyright infringers and distributed the $9.5 million settlement to over 2,000 authors. These are just a few of our many initiatives.
I should emphasize that the most significant thing the Guild does to protect authors’ income is to offer our members free legal advice, contract reviews and legal intervention when necessary. Being a member of the Guild is like having a lawyer on retainer. We have quite literally helped authors earn millions of extra dollars from their work in this way, by making sure they are legally protected and fairly compensated.
The Guild’s influence, authority and power in our society is directly proportional to our membership. That is why, today more than ever, your membership in the Guild is so vital. In this difficult ecosystem for books, we authors need to be united more than ever.
With warm regards,