Friday, December 13, 2013

Konrath and Eisler vs. Richard Russo and the Authors Guild

Joe: As 2013 draws to a close, we're fortunate to hear from our good friends at the Authors Guild, who share with us an earnest attempt to get members to rejoin.

Which, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know is a TERRIBLE IDEA.

The Authors Guild under Scott Turow's leadership has done an awe-inspiring job of trying to maintain the antiquated status quo, where publishers coveted their power and treated most authors poorly; technology is considered the devil's sorcery; and Amazon is Satan himself.

Here, hopefully for the last time, is Scott Turow, presenting a letter by Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo to Authors Guild members. Turow asked for this to be forwarded to friends, so I'm forwarding it to roughly a hundred thousand of my blog readers, interspersed with occasional thoughts from me and Barry Eisler.

Barry: Scott and Richard, thanks for your latest! Joe and I haven’t been handed this much bullshit to fisk since that infamous memo from Hachette.

Joe: Or that AAR nonsense. Or the last time the Authors Guild acted stupid, which wasn't long ago. Barry and I have taken the Authors Guild and Scott Turow to task before, and once again we welcome the chance to expose the nonsense the powerful are trying to sell you.

Barry: Also once again, Scott and Richard, we urge you to respond to these (and numerous other) criticisms. After all, don’t you guys want authors to be properly informed? Joe’s blog has hundreds of thousands of readers who might be misled by our dangerous ideas! Or do you not think this topic is important enough to merit open debate and discussion? Do you really care so little about the authors you’re trying to persuade to fork money over to your guild that you won’t even engage in a little back-and-forth on their behalf?

Joe: Barry, don't you have an open challenge to publicly debate Scott Turow anywhere, anytime?

Barry: Yes, in pretty much every interview I do and talk I give, and whenever I post on this topic, I make sure to call Scott out on his inaccuracies and his bullshit and challenge him to back them up by debating me. But I can understand why he’s afraid to defend his ideas. It’s because they make no sense are are so easy to demolish with elementary facts and logic.

You know what impressed the hell out of me? Former New York Times editor Bill Keller invited Glenn Greenwald, a huge critic of Keller’s, to a debate in the pages of the Times. That showed a lot of integrity, and even though I’m a critic of Keller myself and didn’t find his arguments persuasive, the discussion was hugely interesting and Keller earned a lot of respect from me with that move. So Scott, why not emulate Keller and invite your critics to debate you on the AG blog? Wouldn’t that be a smart and honest way to try win a few of the hearts and minds you say you’re after? And you can debate us here anytime, as well. Wouldn’t that be a minimally honest, transparent, courageous thing to do? Wouldn’t it benefit your readers if they could see you debunk our ridiculous arguments? What’s stopping you?

Joe: Keep in mind that the Authors Guild shuts off comments when people begin to disagree with the post. (If you'd like to read the letter without Barry and I adding our comments, you can do so here.) And with that, here's Scott...

Scott Turow: Dear colleague,

As I enter the last few months of my time as Guild president, I have a favor to ask.

Richard Russo has written a letter that I'd like you to share with an author you know who isn't yet a member of the Guild. The letter follows, and speaks eloquently for itself. Simply forward this message on to a friend.

I'm happy to report that the Guild has never had more members in its 100-year history. Even so, we are beginning a process of self-renewal for the Guild. Rick's letter is the first step in that process, in which we are determined to explain our benefit to all authors in the U.S., and hopefully, draw in many more.

Many thanks, and best wishes for a warm holiday season.

Joe: Perhaps I'm over-reacting, but I find Turow's use of the term "self-renewal" interesting.

Barry: Interesting as in, what the hell does it even mean? Is it like when terrorists “self-radicalize?”

I’ll have more to say about this below (and Russo and Turow will give me plenty of opportunities), but for now, I’ll just point out that anytime someone is addressing you with jargon as bizarre and opaque as, “Hi, we’re here to self-renew!”--or, worse yet, when they stretch the nonsense out into an even more verbose phrase like “beginning a process of self-renewal”--you are being bullshitted.

Joe: Hah. Well, here’s what I think Turow means, even if he doesn’t realize it. Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization.

Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.
My reading of Turow's words is that he cares about the Authors Guild, wants it to continue (self-renew), and needs authors to do so.

Isn't that backwards? Shouldn't Turow be concerned with what the Guild can do for authors, and not what authors can do for the Guild? Isn't the whole point of the Guild to help authors, and not simply to acquire as many authors as possible so the Guild can continue to exist?

How messed-up is it when an organization--created by writers to benefit writers--realizes it has to take steps to explain how it benefits those writers? Has the Authors Guild figured out out that it needs writers more than writers need the Guild?

If so, good for them, because they are correct. Writers don’t need the Authors Guild. Many writers do need guidance, but they should seek it from peers who are living in 2013, not in 1998. We should seek help and advice from those who are thriving in this new publishing world, not those who made fortunes in the legacy world, years ago.

Barry: Well, one thing Turow and I agree on here. Russo’s letter “speaks eloquently for itself.” This is supposed to be the letter by which “we are determined to explain our benefit to all authors in the U.S., and hopefully, draw in many more”? With what? Glittering generalities, unexamined assumptions, and numerous disproven memes?

Seriously, where’s the part about how the “Authors Guild” has secured for authors digital royalties better than the 25% legacy industry lockstep? Where the AG has succeeded in preventing legacy publishers from draconian rights lockups? Or gotten the legacy industry to share real time sales data with authors? Or pressured the legacy industry to present royalty statements in a fashion just marginally clearer than the Dead Sea Scrolls? Or dragged the legacy industry away from its insistence on paying authors amounts due only twice a year?

Richard and Scott, you’re trying to sell authors on the benefits of membership--membership that will cost those authors money--and you can’t point to even one single concrete success you’ve had (in over a century of existence) in supposedly defending author interests?

I’d be shocked at the poor salesmanship. But I’m not. Because those successes don’t exist. And in the absence of any successes to point to, what can Russo and Turow do besides bloviate?

Joe: Wikipedia concurs. For a century-old organization, The Authors Guild hasn't done anything worth bragging about.

So now here's Pulitzer Prize Winning author Richard Russo, the first step in the Authors Guild process of self-renewal.

Richard Russo: An Open Letter to My Fellow Authors

It’s all changing, right before our eyes. Not just publishing, but the writing life itself, our ability to make a living from authorship. Even in the best of times, which these are not, most writers have to supplement their writing incomes by teaching, or throwing up sheet-rock, or cage fighting.

Joe: Holy sheet-rock.

Actually, I though the sheet-rock and cage fighting references were funny. (Intentionally funny. Things become unintentionally funny later.)

But I have to take exception to Russo's assertion that these are not the best of times.

In February of this year, I got my backlist returned to me, and self-published the titles once controlled by legacy publishers.

The most I ever made from these books, when controlled by legacy publishers and including all advances and royalties (all of my legacy pubbed books earned out their advances), was $50,000 a year.

This year I've made $1,000,000. Because I--not legacy publishers--control my intellectual property.

There are thousands of authors who were once legacy published, or were rejected by legacy publishers, or didn't even bother submitting to legacy publishers, who are making real money, paying real bills, because of this self-publishing revolution. Visit www.kindleboards.com to talk to a few hundred of them, and read about some of the most successful at http://www.kboards.com/authors/.

This is the greatest time ever to be a writer. Unless, perhaps, you are a writer who was a huge bestseller under the old system…

Richard: It wasn’t always so, but for the last two decades I’ve lived the life most writers dream of: I write novels and stories, as well as the occasional screenplay, and every now and then I hit the road for a week or two and give talks. In short, I’m one of the blessed, and not just in terms of my occupation. My health is good, my children grown, their educations paid for. I’m sixty-four, which sucks, but it also means that nothing that happens in publishing—for good or ill—is going to affect me nearly as much as it affects younger writers, especially those who haven’t made their names yet. Even if the e-price of my next novel is $1.99, I won’t have to go back to cage fighting.

Joe: Here begins the fundamental disconnect.

Richard, aren't you aware there are thousands of writers making a living from $1.99 ebooks? That what you considered to be a slight (and, actually, it may indeed be a slight when your publisher pays you 35 cents on a $1.99 ebook when I can make $1.36 on a $1.99 ebook using Amazon Select Countdown) in fact represents liberation for writers--and for readers?

Inexpensive ebooks aren’t what make authors dig into their retirement funds. Or fight in cage matches. It's quite the opposite. I've made my million bucks this year pricing my backlist at $3.99 and under. And my books weren't available in every bookstore, airport, drugstore, and department store.

In fact, my books weren't available in ANY bookstore, airport, drugstore, or departments store.

Richard: Still, if it turns out that I’ve enjoyed the best the writing life has to offer, that those who follow, even the most brilliant, will have to settle for less, that won’t make me happy and I suspect it won’t cheer other writers who’ve been as fortunate as I. It’s these writers, in particular, that I’m addressing here.

Barry: What is this based on? “...those who follow, even the most brilliant, will have to settle for less.” Where is the evidence for this? Because all the evidence with which I’m familiar indicates the opposite--including, for example, that a quarter of the top Kindle 100 books are self-published. Ignoring--or denying--the fact that thousands of authors are now making good livings outside the legacy system is at this point like arguing the earth is flat.

So Richard, I’m asking you: given the overwhelming evidence to the contrary (just click on the links in the paragraph above to get started), what is the basis for your fear that you and legacy publishing are all that’s for the the best in the best of all possible worlds, and that it’s all downhill from here? Do you have any real-world evidence at all in favor of the proposition? If so, why do you not cite it?

Joe: Perhaps, Richard, you believe you are addressing those “less fortunate” authors. But you aren't. Because the only authors who are being forced to settle for less in this new publishing paradigm are hardcover and paperback bestsellers. Those who have won big prizes, and enjoyed huge print runs, and had movies made from their intellectual property. For everyone else, self-publishing and Amazon Publishing represent new choices, and therefore greater opportunity.

Richard: Not everyone believes, as I do, that the writing life is endangered by

Joe: This is a long list here, so we're going to break it down point-by-point...

Richard: the downward pressure of e-book pricing,

Joe: This was my best earning year ever as a writer. It was also the year I did the least amount of work. I only released one new solo novel this year, did zero interviews, zero speeches, zero travelling, zero conventions, zero book fairs, and my only self-promo was some advertising (BookBub and others) and this blog.

All with the titles in my oeuvre being $3.99 or less.

Barry: Ah, the Orwellian language. “Downward pressure of e-book pricing.” Known in plain English as “lower-priced books.” Which people who value reading and care about readers would presumably want.

But it would be uncomfortable for Russo to make the argument honestly: “I’m against lower-priced books. I think less expensive books are bad.” So, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink, he instinctively hides behind the jargon, instead.

My previous publishers insisted on pricing the ebooks of my new novels at $12.99. By contrast, my Amazon-published novels come out at $5.99 (and my new one, Graveyard of Memories, out on February 11, will in fact be priced at $4.99). I’ve sold far, far more copies of these low-priced Amazon titles, and made far, far more money from them, then I did with any of my legacy priced books. Similarly, my legacy publishers charged $7.99 for my backlist titles in digital. When I got my rights back and self-published those titles earlier this year, I halved the prices--and more than doubled my income. Why is that bad?

And one thing that pisses me off any time I have to listen to whining about how “books are being devalued” and “downward pricing pressure” and similar such bullshit bingo in which Russo engages: it includes not a thought about what’s best for readers. Don’t readers benefit from lower-priced books? Don’t we want more people to be able to afford more books? But to the extent Russo cares about readers at all, it’s exclusively in a self-centered, reductionist, trickle-down-economics fashion, along the lines of, “What’s good for the publishing industry must also be good for readers” (watch, he really does this a little ways down).

Richard: by the relentless, ongoing erosion of copyright protection,

Joe: I'm wildly pirated. I encourage it. I've even done experiments that have shown my sales increased through piracy.

I have never seen a convincing study that shows piracy harms ebook sales. In fact, I haven't seen a study that it harms any digital sales.

If you are concerned about piracy, make sure your books are easily available, affordable, and have no restrictions on them (DRM, proprietary formats, country boundaries).

Barry: Anyone interested in learning more about what Russo calls “the relentless, ongoing erosion of copyright protection” would do well to read TechDirt, about the best blog out there on the topic. Unlike Russo and Turow, Mike Masnick and the other writers there consistently use real-world evidence to back up their claims that the damage wrought by “piracy” is hugely overrated, to the extent it exists at all. It would be nice if Russo and Turow would imitate TechDirt by themselves citing some actual evidence. For some particularly incisive (and hilarious) reading, here’s Masnick absolutely eviscerating some of Turow’s crazy claims about piracy, copyright, and the Constitution. Naturally, Turow has issued no public corrections

Richard: by the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon,

Joe: Ah yes, those terrible capitalist organizations that rose to power by giving customers what they want. And in the case of Amazon, treating authors like customers rather than cheap, replaceable machine cogs.

If Amazon and Google keep being such big, capitalist bullies, the Big 5 might actually have to… I dunno… compete. Or at least try to.

Barry: Well, you have to understand that Turow, at least, thinks competition is bad (likewise innovation). It’s important to know where these guys are coming from.

Richard: by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them,

Joe: I thought they tried to stand up to them, by meeting in secret and colluding, then denying it.

Hmm. Perhaps that was a bit spineless. What we need is someone who will stand up to Amazon's tyranny. Someone who will put their money where their mouth is. Someone who is mad as hell, and just won't take it anymore, and will lead the way by refusing to sell any more books through Amazon.
Also, that someone can't be a hypocrite.

Barry: Yeah, this one always astonishes me. I mean, just because you’re being hypocritical, it doesn’t mean ipso facto you’re wrong, but… this letter is supposed to persuade people to join the “Authors Guild” and its mission of standing up to a company that practices “scorched-earth capitalism” and seeks “world domination” and glories in “burying your competitors and then burying the shovel.” And the guys who are leading that charge… sell their books through the very company in question. Who are they trying to inspire with their noble example?

Richard and Scott, you’ve both said many times how you’re set for life, the revolution can’t affect you, your intentions are purely altruistic, etc. So what’s keeping you from instructing your publishers to pull your existing books from, and to stop offering your new books with, Amazon? How can you presume to lecture others about what sacrifices they should make in their own businesses when you’re so nakedly unwilling to put your own money where your mouths are?

Richard: by the “information wants to be free” crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity,

Joe: I do believe art should be cheap, or free, and the artist can still earn a very good living. I don't believe ebooks are a commodity, because they don't conform to the rules of supply and demand. I also believe that being able to reach an audience and practice my art without having to impress gatekeepers (agents, publishers, grant benefactors) is an amazing, unprecedented opportunity.

I dislike comparing art to commodities, but probably for the opposite reason Russo does. Commodities include necessities. Art is not as important as food or gas. Art is a luxury. And in many cases, luxuries are interchangeable. Someone wanting my next book, which hasn't been released yet, could derive comparable pleasure from one of Barry's books.

Writers are entertainers. We're not feeding villages. We're not curing cancer. No one owes us a living because we spend hours a writing stories. When it comes down to it, we're really not that important.

And for all of you who spell art with a capital A and want to point to some work of staggering genius that changed your life, I recommend you go without eating for two weeks to put things in perspective.

Barry: This is just a silly strawman. There’s no debate here about whether information should be free. The question is, should individuals be able to determine for themselves what prices to charge for what they sell? And no one is arguing that books are a commodity, a notion that in this context is just a distraction. Authors with powerful brands will be able to charge higher prices (I once saw a Ken Follett ebook--I think it was Fall of Giants--priced at something like $21.00. My thought was, Go Ken!). Other authors will find they can maximize their incomes at a lower per-unit price point. Why does this notion offend Russo? Does he support price-fixing, instead?

Every time I ask one of these questions, it makes me a little sad that the president of the august Authors Guild lacks the integrity to respond. But alas.

Richard: by internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to on-line sites that sell pirated (read “stolen”) books,

Joe: Now we've gotten into "you damn kids get off my lawn" kind of cantankery, when you blame search engines for doing what search engines do.

Or… wait! I've got it! Let's require search engines to ban and censor sites we don't like! Information might want to be free, but it shouldn't be! Everyone should pay dearly for it! They should pay $12.99! Er, I mean $9.99, because legacy publishers aren't allowed to control prices anymore because of all that illegal collusion.

I wonder if the Pulitzer judges paid for the copies of Empire Falls they read. Or if (gasp!) they got them for free! Because no good can come from getting free books!

Barry: I have to say it again: here’s Masnick absolutely eviscerating some of Turow’s crazy claims about piracy, copyright, and the Constitution. Richard, you really should have taken the trouble to read Masnick’s piece before publicly repeating Scott’s thoroughly debunked and nonsensical claims. After all, you’re a member of this thing called the Authors Guild. Don’t you care about providing authors with accurate information?

Richard: and even by militant librarians who see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to “lend” our e-books without restriction.

Joe: I have recently created a company that will allow libraries to lend ebooks without restriction. No BS. More on this soon. I'll make an announcement in early 2014, but the genesis of it came from this old blog post.

I'm guessing Turow and Russo won't put their ebooks into my program.

But then, it really isn't their choice, because they don't control their rights. If I decide I want their books, my new business can simply deal with their publishers directly.

Barry: Jeez, even librarians are bad guys now? Paranoid much?

Joe: Are you telling me librarians don't carry guns at your library, Barry? Or send you to a prison camp for returning a book that is overdue?

Barry: Maybe we could have a new Authors Guild slogan: “Librarians. The Real Enemy of Reading."

Joe: Oh, Authors Guild, whatever can I do?! Those militant librarians are trying to share my work with more readers, and thereby create more readers for my work!

Barry: Actually, libraries aren’t exactly fans of Turow’s nonsense. Here’s Maureen Sullivan, President of the American Library Association, with a common-sense response to Turow.

Richard: But those of us who are alarmed by these trends have a duty, I think, to defend and protect the writing life that’s been good to us, not just on behalf of younger writers who will not have our advantages if we don’t, but also on behalf of readers, whose imaginative lives will be diminished if authorship becomes untenable as a profession.

Barry: I have to ask again: where’s the evidence of your duty to make sure the authors you’re addressing are being provided information that hasn’t been debunked? That’s backed with a modicum of evidence? That’s been minimally thought through? Why doesn’t this noble sense of duty extend to the president of the Authors Guild ever publicly correcting any of the embarrassingly egregious mistakes people like Joe, Mike Masnick, and others are always having to point out to him?

But that’s not how Russo conceives of his “duty.” He says it himself, and couldn’t be more clear: his duty, as he conceives it, is primarily to “protect the writing life that’s been good to us.” Everything else is subordinate to that.

“We have to protect the system that’s been good to me us…” Why does this sound familiar? Oh, right -- because it’s been around for so long. It even has a name: protectionism.

Joe: You know what would be nice? If someone would think about readers!

Hey, didn't James Patterson also spout similar nonsense earlier this year? Didn't some blogger take Patterson to task for saying that?

Readers have more choices than ever. They have more books available to them, at lower prices, than ever before. It doesn't matter where they live, or if they can physically get to a bookstore or library, because ebooks are delivered instantly. It doesn't matter if they have vision problems, because ebooks have adjustable font, or will even read themselves out loud.

Ebooks are the best thing to happen to readers since the Gutenberg Press, and to the writers who are now able to reach those readers directly.

Barry: Just to amplify that last point: if your primary goals have to do with what’s best for readers, and if you think more reading is good for society, then you cannot be opposed to lower-priced books. If you are opposed to lower-priced books, then you might care about readers and reading, but you must by definition care about other things more. Such as, I don’t know, ““protect[ing] the writing life that’s been good to us.”

Joe: How about the "younger writers who will not have our advantages"? Does this mean I won't… I won't...

Barry: Yes, Joe. You won't win a Pulitzer.

Joe: Nooooooooooooooooooooo!

Barry: But seriously, I get so tired of this weird, evidence-free universe Russo’s ideas float around in. What “advantages?” Russo won big in a system that worked for him. I’m happy for him. But what happened as a result is that he became incapable of understanding that the system in question produced thousands of losers for every winner. You can see this stunted worldview on display in the New York Times op-ed I referred to earlier, where Russo tries to divine what Amazon’s price-matching feature portends for the book world by exclusively contacting a few rich and famous cronies. This is exactly like Warren Buffett trying to figure out what a new provision in the tax code might mean for America by phoning up Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Pierre Omidyar.

Richard, younger writers are doing fine. Follow a few of the links above and you’ll see. Or do some minimal Internet research of your own. I’m glad the old way worked for you--truly. And I love your books. But you have to understand that the old way isn’t the only way. That makes sense, doesn’t it? That there are other ways? That industries evolve? That other systems might work for other writers, and that those writers should be free to pursue what works for them even if it makes you personally uncomfortable?

Richard: I know, I know. Some insist that there’s never been a better time to be an author. Self-publishing has democratized the process, they argue, and authors can now earn royalties of up to seventy percent, where once we had to settle for what traditional publishers told us was our share.

Joe: And that was only if legacy publishers would even deign to offer us one of their take-it-or-leave-it unconscionable contracts.

Also, Richard, please tell us if you've been able to get 70% royalties from your publishers, or if you just accepted what they told you was your share.

And another thing: you make these statements as though suggesting they’re incorrect, but then you never bother stating how they’re incorrect. Can you please refute something? Or form an actual argument? Can't you do a single thing to persuade via logic and facts? A hyperlink? Anything at all other than evidence-free conjecture?

Barry: I was going to say the same thing. Russo states two opinions with which he obviously disagrees, then throws in a fact--authors can now make 70% royalties--as though this proposition is equally dubious. Nobody’s “arguing” that authors can now earn 70% royalties. This is just a fact, and one that Russo apparently doesn’t know how to discuss rationally. That, or he doesn’t know the difference between an opinion he doesn’t like and the indisputable facts that might form the basis for that opinion.

Hmm, I just can’t figure out why this letter hasn’t inspired me to help the Authors Guild engage in its process of self-renewal. Maybe it’s just me?

Richard: Anecdotal evidence is marshaled in support of this view (statistical evidence to follow).

Barry: I think this might be the most breathtakingly unself-aware claim in the entire letter. Russo is complaining that proponents of choice in publishing refer only to anecdotes? Please, Richard, take a few minutes and reread your letter. And by all means, point to even a single anecdote, a statistic, or any other piece of supporting evidence from the world outside your imagination. If you think argument without solid evidence is worthless, why have you published such an evidence-free letter as this one? How can you not see that you’re exemplifying the very behavior you decry, while your critics exemplify the opposite?

Hint: here’s one possible explanation.

Richard: Those of us who are alarmed, we’re told, are, well, alarmists. Time will tell who’s right,

Joe: Actually, I can tell you. I'm right. You're wrong. I don't require time to reveal that. Facts and logic are what reveal that.

Barry: Richard, I don’t think you’re an alarmist. Sometimes alarm is called for. Sometimes, in fact, its absence can only exist as the product of denial (anything short of alarm in the face of Edward Snowden’s revelations, I would argue, would be naive at best. Plus, the surveillance state really does think of itself as a giant octopus doing unspeakable things to the earth!).

No, I don’t think you’re an alarmist. Rather, I think that, at least on this topic, you’re thoughtless. Likewise Turow. If you thought about these things a bit, if you did some minimal research, if you would stop amplifying debunked claims that never made sense in the first place, you might feel less alarmed. So no, it’s not the alarm that concerns me. It’s the lack of thought behind it.

Joe: I don't consider you an alarmist either, Richard. I consider you a protector of the Old Way of Doing Things.

Barry: The OWDOT?

Joe: It transposes two letters, but I like how that sounds.

Barry: No, I think we can make it work: OWoDoT. Get it?

Joe: Okay, I’m going with it. Richard, the OWDOT treated you well. In some ways, it’s natural you would want to protect it.

But that’s the sort of thinking that bankrupted Kodak. There exists a new technology that allows for a new way to reach readers. This way is faster, easier, and cheaper than it has ever been in history.

Instead of embracing this invention, publishers have been trying for years to stop it. And they had good reason to try--because they didn't control the ebook market like they controlled the paper market.

Barry and I explain it all in Be the Monkey. It’s free, so don't concern yourself with tracking down a pirated copy.

Barry: Seriously, Richard, why don’t you try reading it? I know you can get much better confirmation bias by calling up a few friends who are situationally exactly like you and who you know share your world view. But is that really the best way to pressure-check your opinions? To come to grips with new ideas?

Joe: Hey, aren't we both friends who are situationally similar and share the same world view?

Barry: Yes! And we punish ourselves regularly reading and responding to the Russos and Turows of the world. I’d love to see them do something remotely similar.

Joe: Won't happen. First of all, they won't even respond to this. Second, when I call you it is because I want dissenting opinion, not corroboration. I want you (and the many other peers I rely upon to pressure-check me) to prove me wrong. To find points I missed. To beat me in a debate.

I seek alternative views, not yes men.

Barry: It’s fine to discuss things with your pals. But there’s no excuse for shielding yourself from information that contradicts your biases. Or for failing to engage your critics--especially when you’re on a self-declared mission to protect and defend authors from scorched-earth capitalism and all that.

Joe: Richard, I think you’re worried because you did well in the past, and you fear you won't be able to equal that success in the future. Those who benefit from the status quo tend to want things to stay the same.

But grumbling at the wind won't stop it from happening. Building windmills, however… that's what Barry and I and thousands of writers who will never join the Authors Guild are all doing. We're embracing the future, and doing fine.

Richard: but surely it can’t be a good idea for writers to stand on the sidelines while our collective fate is decided by others.

Joe: Kinda like, um, the Big 5 deciding our fate?

Barry: Yes, I’d be much more comfortable letting my fate be decided by purveyors of ignorance like the Authors Guild.

Or--crazy idea, I know--writers could even make decisions for themselves. Or, if they want to act collectively, they could form a guild that’s worthy of the name (though I’d recommend calling it a union rather than a guild, unless the idea really is to use a medieval term to signify the organization is archaic). We would know if such a union exists by whether it’s able to get legacy publishers to change some of their more antediluvian and draconian practices (again, 25% lockstep digital royalties, etc, etc). Richard? Scott? Could you share some of those successes with the authors you’re attempting to bring in on your process of self-renewal? If not, then leaving aside for the moment the medievalism of the terminology, why are you calling yourself a guild?

It’s a serious question. Here, I’m a skeptical author. Can you demonstrate to me how the Authors Guild represents my interests in any way that’s meaningfully adverse to legacy publishing? Can you provide any case studies of circumstances where legacy publishers were treating authors poorly, and you were able to effect meaningful change beneficial to authors? I don’t know why you would have left such evidence out of your letter (after all, you’ve pointed out that you disdain evidence-free argument).

And if such evidence doesn’t exist, can you accept that you’re much less a guild--and certainly not a union--but rather something more akin to the legacy publishing industry’s best-known lobbyist?

RIchard: Especially when we consider who those others are. Entities like Google and Apple and Amazon are rich and powerful enough to influence governments, and every day they demonstrate their willingness to wield that enormous power.

Joe: Kinda like, um, the Big 5 wielding enormous power?

Barry: I’d actually like to see the “Authors Guild” wield a little power on behalf of authors and against legacy publishers. Unless… wait, I get it. Why would the AG ever wield power that way? Because just like what’s good for authors is good for readers, what’s good for legacy publishing is good for authors. It all makes sense to me now.

Joe: Richard, did you read the part above where I said how much money I made this year? I've made more money self-pubbing in the last six months than I made in eight years with legacy publishers.

That's because I had no power before. My legacy publishers had the power. Once the power came back to me (via my rights reverting), I did what they couldn't do: I reached readers.

Amazon and Google and Apple empower writers. But you don't like them because they're eating your corporate partners for lunch.

Richard: Books and authors are a tiny but not insignificant part of the larger battle being waged between these companies, a battleground that includes the movie, music, and newspaper industries.
Joe: Here's the same kind of thinking I was taking Turow to task for earlier.

I'm not an industry. I'm an author. I don't care about trying to protect an industry. That's not my concern. My concern is reaching readers.

You and Scott found cozy spots in the legacy industry, and now you're afraid it is going away. Which is understandable, because it is. And since you can't find any logical or factual way to defend your position, you spout nonsense and hope no one is paying close enough attention to call you out.

I managed to find my place, and make a good living, in the self-publishing industry. But if that goes away, I'll roll with it and try to figure out the next thing that comes along.

I don't fight to protect the status quo, because I'm already looking at 2015 and deciding how I can thrive there.

I believe you're looking at 2001 and wondering how to get back to those good old days.

Richard: I think it’s fair to say that to a greater or lesser degree, those other industries have all gotten their asses kicked, just as we’re getting ours kicked now. And not just in the courts.

Joe: Was that a DOJ/agency pricing reference? If so, I fried that fish already.

Barry: What is it with this “we” and “our” stuff? It’s like a David Brooks column, or a Colbert parody. Why are some people unable to understand that their own situations and preferences aren’t representative of those of everyone else? It’s weird.

Look, I’m sorry if Russo feels like someone kicked his ass. I don’t feel that way. I’m doing fine in the new system. Thousands of other writers are, too (and readers are doing better than anyone).

We’re not telling Russo or Turow what to do. Why do they have to get up in our business? The more I watch the defenders of the OWDOT try to convince everyone else that there’s only one right way to publish books--their way--the more I’m convinced that the revolution in publishing is fundamentally about the forces of group control, on one side, and the forces of individual freedom, on the other. I know this characterization would likely upset Russo and Turow, but who’s intent on telling other people what to charge, who to work with, and how to publish? And whose attitude is just, “Look, do whatever you think is best for yourself, but stop trying to interfere with me?”

Joe: As for the other industries getting their asses kicked, perhaps they should have--I dunno--listened to what customers wanted and tried to compete?

And you speak for "our" industry. It is no longer "my" industry. Yet I am an author.

This kind of talk is why I started calling you guys the Publisher's Guild. Because you want to protect the industry that served you, not other authors. All glory to the OWDOT!

Richard: Somehow, we’re even losing the war for hearts and minds. When we defend copyright, we’re seen as greedy.

Joe: Actually, you're seen as naive.

I'd love to live in the world I want to exist, but I'm stuck in this world. This world has digital piracy. Digital piracy has not been shown to harm artists. The efforts used to combat digital piracy irritates consumers--ask any consumer who wants to transfer an ebook with DRM to more than one of their ereading devices, or to share it with Mom, or to store a copy on their hard drive in case the proprietary format ever changes.

The music companies could have looked at Napster and said, "Hey! People like to listen to and share digital music files! How can we give people what they want?"

Instead they said, "Hey! Let's sue!"

End result: the biggest retailer of music on the planet isn't a music company, it's a computer company.

Oops.

BTW, you are losing the war for hearts and minds because you are wrong. You and Scott are in the elite minority and are desperate to defend your standing, but you can't even come up with a halfway decent argument. Or any evidence at all.

Consider that. You believe everything is up for grabs here, that the future is at stake. And both you and Scott are great writers (and Scott’s a lawyer, too). And between the two of you, you can't pen a coherent argument? Does that tell you anything?

Barry: Took the words out of my mouth. If you’re worried about losing the war for hearts and minds, Richard, maybe it’s because of stunningly lame letters like this one? Maybe you’d have a better chance if Scott would correct his egregious misstatements after others have pointed them out to him or otherwise engage his critics? Or if the AG were a tad more transparent? Or if you could answer any of the questions in this critique, and provide a few case studies of actual AG work on behalf of authors that has resulted in meaningful changes by the legacy industry?

Why don’t you try telling authors what good the AG has ever actually done them? Can’t you?

Okay, let me make it easier. How about listing five things you wish--just wish, it doesn’t have to be more than that--the legacy industry would change on behalf of the authors you claim to represent. Can you do even that much? Just name five things. That would be a good start. Because if you’re afraid to do even that much, there really isn’t much hope, is there? And if there’s nothing you wish would change because, again, you think legacy publishing already is all that’s for the the best in the best of all possible worlds, then we have a different kind of problem.

Joe: And piggybacking on Barry's point, if you can name five things--hell, if you can name one thing--about legacy publishing that could be changed to benefit authors, then why hasn't the Guild done anything to fight for that?

Richard: When we justly sue, we’re seen as litigious.

Joe: Actually, that's when you're seen as greedy. It's like when the RIAA sued that grandmother. It just looks bad.

Barry: Not just greedy. Stupid. And antediluvian. Again, where is the evidence that piracy is actually harming authors? Suing to stop it is boneheaded and counterproductive. If common sense doesn’t tell you this is so, have a look at this new London School of Economics Study, which finds that not only isn’t piracy hurting the entertainment industry, it’s actually helping it.

Richard: When we attempt to defend the physical book and stores that sell them, we’re seen as Luddites.

Joe: Wow, this argument is still going on? Didn't I address this four years ago, before ebooks really took off?

I love bookstores. I've signed books at more bookstores than any author in history (over 1200). I even have a plan to help bookstores, which I hatched with Blake Crouch (and not a single bookstore has taken us up on it.)

But my main goal as a writer is to find readers. Those are my customers. So I go where they're actually buying books, not where I'd like them to buy books.

Barry: I get so tired of these canards. Richard, I don’t think you’re a luddite (again, I think you’re thoughtless, based on how little thought I’ve seen in your public writings regarding publishing). And I don’t care if you want to “defend the physical book and stores that sell them,” whatever that means. As long as you’re okay with my selling books how, and at what prices, and with whom I want. Live and let live--are you okay with that?

Richard: Our altruism, when we’re able to summon it, is too often seen as self-serving.

Barry: Maybe because… it’s not altruism?

I know, I know… it’s always for a good cause. That’s why we called our invasion of Iraq “Iraqi Freedom.” It’s why a federal law to disenfranchise gays was called “The Defense of Marriage Act.” Why is it the people who most want to get up in other people’s business always tell themselves they’re doing it out of altruism? I guess they couldn’t do this shit if they were honest with themselves.

Richard, have you read Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society? Here’s one of my favorite quotes, perhaps worth some reflection: “We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality..."

Joe: You hit a home run with this one, Richard. I agree 100%. Because what you believe is altruism is, indeed, self-serving.

You’re not concerned for the welfare of others. Others are doing fine. You’re concerned about your welfare, and the welfare of the Authors Guild, though you have yet to show why the Authors Guild is good for authors. You haven't even tried.

Richard: But here’s the thing. What the Apples and Googles and Amazons and Netflixes of the world all have in common (in addition to their quest for world domination), is that they’re all starved for content, and for that they need us. Which means we have a say in all this.

Barry: This is a really interesting concept. Has the AG ever tried applying it to the legacy industry? Or is the legacy industry inherently, ineluctably beneficial to authors?

Right, I forgot. What’s good for the legacy industry is good for authors. My question was nonsensical. Never mind.

Joe: Barry! Stop questioning OWDOT!

Barry: I know, I know. I should just let go and be assimilated. But seriously, wouldn’t it be great if the AG could provide a few case studies of how, because publishers are starved for content, the AG has used its “say” to effect meaningful change for the authors it claims to represent? If they could do that, maybe they could even win a couple hearts and minds, and they wouldn’t have to worry so much about processes of self-renewal.

Richard: Everything in the digital age may feel new and may seem to operate under new rules, but the conversation about the relationship between art and commerce is age-old, and artists must be part of it.

Joe: Like artists were a part of it in legacy publishing?

Could you assume, for a moment, that perhaps the Big 5 treat Pulitzer winners and bestselling authors a bit better than they treat all other authors?

Perhaps you and Scott were able to play a part in the relationship between art and commerce because your publishers allowed it. Perhaps you got better ebook royalty rates than your peers (and then had to sign NDAs saying you can never admit it publicly). Perhaps you had a say so in the price of your books, your distribution, your titles, your cover art.

The rest of us--the mid-list majority that the Authors Guild purports to represent--were not treated like you and Scott were.

But now, for the first time, we can directly reach readers. We aren't simply part of the conversation about the relationship between art and commerce--we directly make decisions about that relationship.

Richard: To that end we’d do well to speak with one voice,

Barry: You mean… act like a union? Collective bargaining? Wring more favorable terms from the industry that in lockstep pays authors a mere 25% in digital royalties, and deigns to pay us only twice a year? After all, they need our content!

Richard: though it’s here we demonstrate our greatest weakness.

Joe: I'll posit that our greatest weakness is being shills and lackeys and toadies for the legacy publishing industry because we've so desperately craved their attention due to their being the only game in town.

In fact, wasn't the Authors Guild created to inform about and protect authors from the publishing industry? How did it go from that to openly defending publishers who break the law and cost us money?

Barry: Well, since you ask, it’s called regulatory capture. The AG is a textbook case.

Joe: Could that be why this letter is so lame? They can't come up with an argument because they're the bad guys? They can't persuade because their position is indefensible? They can't debate because it's one big house of cards?

Why not be honest?

Barry: I know that was a rhetorical question, but again: Orwell.

Joe: Join the Authors Guild! We represent the .0001% of you who are already hugely successful! And we get all the stupid mid-listers to support our cause! We scare them with alarming boogeymen tales:

  • Beware rampant piracy!
  • Do you want all the bookstores to vanish?!
  • Amazon is taking over the world!
  • Google is scanning our books and violating copyright!
  • Kindle text-to-speech is violating copyright!
  • Copyright as we know it is becoming unenforceable!

The only way to stop these terrible occurrences and quell your misguided fears is to join the Guild... and pay $90 a year!

This point is extremely important, so I want to tease it out a bit more:

The Guild is trying to scare you to join, because it can't convince you using facts and logic. And the things the Guild wants you to fear aren't really scary at all..

  • Piracy isn't going to harm your sales as long as your books are affordable, available, and easily accessible.
  • Record stores vanished, but musicians still flourish. I made $1M this year without selling a single book in a brick and mortar store.
  • Amazon may indeed take over the world, and then commence its thousand-year-reign by offering customers great deals and authors great royalties.
  • Google book scanning was believed by the court to improve book sales and the lawsuit was dismissed.
  • Text-to-speech is no longer an option on new Kindle Paperwhites, but it wasn't because of anything the Guild did.
  • Using copyright to make sure no one is selling your intellectual property without your permission is still important, and supported worldwide (in fact, copyright protection has gotten so strong that if anything it’s out of control). But peer-to-peer file sharing doesn't harm sales, and restricting use on digital files is almost universally hated by libraries and consumers.

Nothing the Guild says is scary actually is scary. These are fear mongering tactics that depend on you not looking at them too closely and not thinking about them at all. The Guild uses these tactics because they can't convince authors to join based on facts, logic, or even common sense. So they resort to fear-mongering, instead (in fairness, fear-mongering can be pretty damn funny).

Barry: This is the most insidious thing about the Authors Guild. The name itself is so perfectly misleading! The right name is the most important part of propaganda. How could anyone oppose the Patriot Act? Are you not a patriot? And what could possibly be objectionable about something called The National Security Agency? Don’t you want the nation to be secure? So yes, “Legacy Publishing Lobbying Arm” wouldn’t be nearly as effective in getting authors to join. Tell those authors it’s for them, and regardless of the truth you’re already halfway there.

Richard: Writers are notoriously independent cusses, hard to wrangle. We spend our mostly solitary days filling up blank pieces of paper with words. We must like it that way, or we wouldn’t do it. But while it’s pretty to think that our odd way of life will endure, there’s no guarantee.

Barry: Writers might have to stop filling up blank pieces of paper with words? What is Russo even talking about here? Is he saying that if publishing evolves and authors are free to publish in new ways, writers will have to stop writing?

That losing effort for hearts and minds, Richard? Could it have something to do with fanciful assertions like this one?

Joe: So, let me get this straight. You want some sort of guarantee that we can stop technology from advancing, halt the future, and force readers to buy books the way you want them to rather than they way they want to?

Filling up blank pieces of paper with words will endure. Actually, the "paper" part of that won't. But filling up a screen with words--writing stories--will always be around. Even if all stories were free. (I'll touch in this in a future blog post--you guys are gonna love it.)

What won't endure is the legacy publishing cartel having a quasi-monopoly on book sales because it owned the distribution channels.

We get it, Richard. You and Scott did very well with the OWDOT. And you want things to stay that way. And you'll mourn those days when they're gone.

But for the majority of writers, that attitude is like mourning British rule in the post-revolution United States. "Ah, remember the good old days when we had the hell taxed out of us but had no representation in government?"

Richard: The writing life is ours to defend. Protecting it also happens to be the mission of the Authors Guild,

Joe: Actually, Scott's intro, and your letter, have not done a single thing to persuade authors that they need the Guild. You spouted a list of disquieting things happening in the industry, but haven't shown how the Guild is spearheading movement toward the greater good, or helping writers in these apparently scary times, or doing anything other than lamely attempting to recruit more authors to help you self-renew.

Barry: I’m really getting tired of the self-serving bullshit about “altruism” and all the rest. Look, the AG exists to defend a system, one that (coincidentally) has been very good to its president and to Russo. It’s not about defending “the writing life.” That’s just fatuous. More people are living the writing life than ever before. Russo doesn’t care about them (actually, I don’t think he even knows about them). He cares about preserving a system.

Joe: All glory to the OWDOT! Everytime I say that I think of:



Which is oddly appropriate. And also sort of a tie-in to Be the Monkey. You don't want to be the frog, or be hypnotized by the toad.

Richard: which I myself did not join until last year, when the light switch in my cave finally got tripped. Are you a member? If not, please consider becoming one. We’re badly outgunned and in need of reinforcements.

Joe: Reinforcements for what? Reinforcements to pay the Guild $90 in annual dues so the Guild can self-renew?

Barry: “Engage in a process of self-renewal.”

Joe: Right. How about this: Guild, renew thyself. Because "self-renew" doesn't mean "writers do it for you by paying dues."

Or, at the very least, explain why I should pay you $90 a year when you consistently defend the legacy industry that has screwed thousands of authors while attacking the self-publishing industry that has benefited tens of thousands of authors?

Barry: The cave imagery, though… that felt about right.

Richard: If the writing life has done well by you, as it has by me, here’s your chance to return the favor. Do it now, because there’s such a thing as being too late.

Joe: And then missiles will blow up little Daisy!

Join now, before it's too late!

Barry: Okay, that was honesty leaking through again. It’s like saying, “If you’re one of the one percent, if America’s economic system as currently configured has done as well by you as it has by me, then fight to preserve it!”

Joe: Can somebody, somewhere, please form a writing organization that actually benefits writers? That doesn't exist to help the rich get richer? That won't succumb to Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy or regulatory capture for a decade or two? That won't use the power of a large untitled group to further the agenda of an entitled few?

Barry: Yes. The legacy industry has its lobbying arm, cleverly entitled “Authors Guild.” An organization that really does use its power to protect the interests of authors would be a welcome counterweight.

Or here’s another way to think of it. Look, we’re not arguing that the Authors Guild does nothing on behalf of authors. A quick trip to their website will reveal various services they perform. But you have to understand these services in context. Think of them as offering help to fishes--but only to the ones that agree to remain in and work to preserve the aquarium. Fishes that want to jump the net and swim in the adjacent ocean freak them out. It’s not so much that they’re anti-fish… they’re just pro-aquarium. But they won’t call themselves that. They call themselves pro-fish, but, whether they realize it or not, that’s not really what they’re about.

We’re also not arguing that Amazon, Apple, Google, et al don’t need competition and strong push-back. They certainly do. But we do find it telling that this organization calling itself the Authors Guild wants to push back only against these companies--which have done so much to empower authors--while doing nothing at all to push back against the legacy industry that refuses to share the wealth in digital royalties, that only pays authors twice a year (seriously, is that alone not incomprehensible and unconscionable?), etc.

Joe: If this is the best the Authors Guild can do to win your allegiance, do you really want to join this organization? It's the opposite of the old Groucho Marx joke. I refuse to be a part of any organization that is too stupid to convince me to join. Because if they can't convince me, how are they going to do me (or anyone else) any good?

Or to put it another way: it is impossible to elect a leader stupider than those who voted for him.

How stupid do you have to be to buy this nonsense? How can anyone consider joining an organization that can't even justify itself, let alone justify what it will do for you?

Scott Turow began the letter asking for a favor. He wanted authors to share this letter.

I'm asking the same favor. Everyone reading this blog post, please share it with other authors.

Barry: Because Turow and Russo can be counted on to do all they can to hide from it. And the Authors Guild to do all they can do to suppress it.

Joe: Tweet it, link to it on Facebook, discuss it in forums, talk about it in public, add your comments below, and try to inform as many writers as you can.

DO NOT JOIN THE AUTHORS GUILD

Let them either explain themselves and reform--or vanish.