By James Gleick

Reprinted from the Fall 2017/Winter 2018 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin.

I asked you last summer for your comments on some hot-button issues that the Authors Guild struggles with daily: how we should deal with Google and other tech companies looking for novel ways to make money by digitizing books; and how we should deal with libraries when they, too, want to digitize books in their collections.

Digitizing books — I can’t write those words without stopping to note how strange they still are, and how fraught with complication. We take it for granted now that a book can be two things at once: a small physical object, paper and ink, to be held in a single person’s hands; and a digital object, weightless, potentially visible on a billion screens at once, everywhere on the planet. The economics of those two things are not the same, to put it mildly. Hence the hot-button issues.

Libraries have a lot of old books, and they envision lending them not just to visitors but to the millions. I asked how you, our members, feel about that. You have strong feelings.

“The idea that libraries or anyone else could seize my books that are ‘out of print’ and lend or give these is so infuriating I have a hard time remaining civil,” writes Jackie Hyman, author (as Jacqueline Diamond) of many romances, mysteries, and comedies. Digitizing copyrighted books is “a violation,” she says. “Who the hell is some librarian, some Google executive or some academic know-it-all (they seem to keep crawling out the woodwork) to determine that it ‘serves the culture’ to ride roughshod over me, potentially harm readers’ perception of my writing, and steal my work to suit their self-righteous sense of entitlement?”

I know she speaks for many of our members. Copyright is central to the Guild’s mission, and we know it’s not just about money. It’s also about control. Our sense of ownership over our work continues after it leaves our pens (all right, our computers) and enters the wide world.

On the other hand, Chris Dickon, historian and author of seven nonfiction books, thinks the rules are changing and we need to evolve. I know that he, too, speaks for many of you. “The long Google fight — ”

(Let me interrupt here to remind newcomers that when Google began scanning and digitizing millions of books borrowed from libraries the Authors Guild sued, along with publishers, beginning a saga that can be reviewed in histories and documents on our website, as well as other places. “I also think the Google suit has become tiresome,” writes another member, Valerie Harms. It’s long since over, but still remembered — I know just how she feels.)

“The long Google fight always left me with mixed feelings,” says Chris Dickon, “and ultimately with the belief that the AG needed to rethink the reality in which we live and the full range of the reasons we write books. For my part, I want my books to be Googled, scanned, e-booked however and wherever possible (except the free download offers I get from .ru addresses) because I write the books to develop and share new information and without the realistic expectation that I will make tons of money with them.”

Speaking personally, I embody these contradictory viewpoints in my own self. I consider myself a pretty tech-savvy guy. There can’t be many more devoted users of Google book search than me. At the same time, I worry that one of the biggest problems authors face is the devaluation of their work by the tech giants — Google, Facebook, and Amazon, especially.

How we should approach Amazon is another issue that divides our members. Some believe passionately that, by taking over huge portions of the bookselling ecosystem and by squeezing publishers mercilessly, Amazon has directly hurt their ability to make a living. We have been vocal when Amazon uses its control over the Buy Box to hurt authors. Others believe just as passionately that Amazon is creating new opportunities for authors. “I think you should stop demonizing Amazon,” Valerie Harms says. “It’s hypocritical when probably most members use Amazon’s services. Booksellers need to learn from them. Times change.”

Times definitely change, and these are interesting times indeed. Our membership has a wide range of views. The point is not to let that paralyze us. Our diversity of opinion on these complex issues has to be a source of strength, not an impediment to action — which means that sometimes we’re going to do things that you (as an individual member) may not like. At least I can tell you that our Council, with thirty members, reflects that same wide range of views, and our discussions are as animated and passionate as you’d expect.

The challenges to creators in a time of tech gigantism form the subject of two important new books, which I’d like to call to your attention: Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, by Jonathan Taplin, former director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and one of the aforementioned members of our Council; and World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, by Franklin Foer, national correspondent for the Atlantic and former editor of the New Republic.

Foer argues that the very idea of authorship is under attack. He reminds us that the professional author — making a living from the pen, protected by copyright — is a relatively new creature. Well into the nineteenth century, writing was seldom a career in itself. “It was idealized as a hobby for patrician Men of Letters . . . who considered compensation for their learned words to be vulgar,” he writes.

That began to change, in the United States, when Mark Twain, Victor Hugo and others championed effective international copyright laws. Copyright goes back to the days of the colonies and is written into the Constitution, but the modern international copyright regime only began to take shape 1891, when the U.S. and Great Britain entered into a bilateral agreement to protect the copyrights of each other’s citizens. The economics and the sociology of authorship then changed quickly. Writing became a profession. Publishing became an industry. “It’s important to remember how professionalism remade American letters,” Foer says. “It democratized it. Writing became more diverse, more vibrant.”

Our present danger is that writing is devalued. It becomes cheap fuel for the Google/Amazon/Face-book machines. A warning sign for any writer, I think, is when you see your work referred to as “content.”