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Is there an answer to Scott Turow’s lament

Scott Turow has taken his lumps around the internet for his bombatic lengthy editorial on the NYTimes. Turow targeted everyone from readers and libraries to search engines as contributing to the death of the American author. But Turow’s lament offers no solutions, only complaints.

The main crux of his argument is that the current system is designed to reduce the amount of money an author can earn from writing.

  1. Search engines lead to piracy sites.
  2. Libraries encourage the free distribution of books and the incentive to buy is gone.
  3. Publishers give low royalties.*
  4. Scanning books gives hackers a quick way to release all copyrighted data freely into the world.

Turow’s piece fails to include the most important part of any op ed and that is a call to action.  What action does Turow want taken to abate the erosion of copyright?

Copyright law currently is fairly strict.  The copyright of any individual work published today will not be entered into the public domain for the life of the author + 70 years.   Current law, particularly with the ReDigi decision, dictates that ebooks are rigidly controlled by the copyright holders.

The royalty issue Turow raises conflicts with most things I’ve been told and read about new and midlist author contracts.  (And Turow says that his dirge is written for those new and midlist authors and not those are bestsellers like himself who he says has benefited “from most of the recent changes in bookselling.”)  Turow writes, “e-book royalties to 25 percent of net receipts. That is roughly half of a traditional hardcover royalty.”  25% of the net receipts under Agency pricing was around 17% off the list.  Most hardcover contracts give 15% off the list.  Maybe Turow received in excess of 30% in royalties but the new and midlist authors have never been offered those terms.

Given that Ageny pricing has been eliminated for two years, at least, perhaps the royalties should no longer be off the net (or never be off the net) but it seems that the percentages that authors received were greater for ebooks than print books.  If Turow is arguing that under Agency pricing, hardcover authors got the shaft, he’d be right.  When Agency was instituted, I was really surprised at how vigorously Turow argued in favor of it.  Authors who published primarily in mass market or trade either benefited or were left the same by the move to Agency pricing, but the hardcover authors saw a reduction in overall royalties.

Under Agency pricing, the hardcover author received a lower dollar amount (although not a lower percentage) because the calculation was off 70% of the price of the ebook (average of $10.50 based on a $14.99 retail price) set by the publisher rather than off the 50% the publisher received under a wholesale agreement which, based on a $25 retail price, would have been $12.50.

The library argument that Turow addresses seems to be directed at the ease of use of digital lending.  Without the need to go inside the library, somehow buying incentive will be reduced.  Turow says, “the only incentive to buy, rather than borrow, an e-book is the fact that the lent copy vanishes after a couple of weeks.”  But how is that different than with physical books? Does having to go the physical library to check out and return a book really increase the incentive to buy a book?  Does having the ease of accessing digital books from your home decrease the incentive to purchase?  I’m not sure on what grounds Turow bases this argument.

The final one is the issue of search engines leading people to pirated books.  Turow points to the search “Scott Turow free e-books” brings up a pirate sites.  But who is searching ““Scott Turow free e-books” unless someone is looking not to pay for them?  Most paying customers are going to their favorite etailer and typing in “Scott Turow.”

Should search engines actively police and suppress piracy sites?  And what constitutes a piracy site?  File sharing site are not, in and of themselves, illegal. Therefore, Google et al would need to determine what number of piracy links would be sufficient to exclude it from the search engines.

Maybe Turow is silent on what to do next because he has no answers but identifying problems and not providing solutions is little more than throwing a public temper tantrum.   My solution to the demise of the American Author is to not be afraid of digital. It’s not going away and moreoever, so many of the literature loving folks are already reading on their devices.  Educated and affluent readers were some of the earliest adopters.  Why not look at alternative methods of funding such as Kickstarter or simply self publishing? What about author coops?  What about mass author signings like the indies are doing to drum up interest and encourage support?

What about looking for non traditional sales venues to increase visibility and sales such as places like Starbucks or other places were book minded people gather?  What about working together with libraries to find a solution to the “lack of friction” problem that some perceive to result in decreased incentive to purchase?  Rather than fomenting about used ebook sales, how about contacting Amazon and offering advice on limits of resale and percentage of income returned to the original copyright owner?

I know that there are those that lament the decrease in paper and the increase in digital reading and are afraid of how that may change our literary culture, but we aren’t rolling back the digital adoption.  So let’s see some solutions and answers to the problems that Turow and others have presented.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Anne
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 05:13:03

    As a librarian, I’m strongly in disagreement on #2 – books are still free from libraries when they are in print – and people still buy books themselves. Why would that change just because electronic books have appeared on the market?

    Not to mention the clauses that some ebook vendors put on libraries: how many people can read the same book at the same time, or how many times a book can be checked out before you have to buy another copy, means that there most likely will be bought the same amount of electronic books as there would have been bought physical books by the library.

    And as a reader: the library allowed me to discover new authors. My local one did not necessarily have all the books by that author, which led to me buying them myself later on.

    I’m 100% sure that I would not be owning everything by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Nora Roberts or Janet Evanovich’s Plum series (to name a few) today, if it wasn’t for the fact that I picked up First Lady, Inner Harbour or Three to get deadly at the local library back in the mid-90s.

  2. Liz H.
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 05:56:09

    Like @Anne, libraries have always been a huge part of my life, and have had almost the exact opposite impact on my reading and book buying habits that I have read from Turrow and others. I have yet to read a coherent, detailed, well-thought out argument against e-books in libraries, that is not just anti-library in general. If there is anyone that can put one forth, I would like to consider it.

  3. Nadia Lee
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 07:10:05

    Turow writes, “e-book royalties to 25 percent of net receipts. That is roughly half of a traditional hardcover royalty.” 25% of the net receipts under Agency pricing was around 17% off the list. Most hardcover contracts give 15% off the list. Maybe Turow received in excess of 30% in royalties but the new and midlist authors have never been offered those terms.


    I think he means $ amount.

    Using your example:

    $25 x 15% cover = $3.75 royalty for hard cover
    $14.99 x 50% (for retailer discount) x 25% (for net) = $1.87 royalty for e-edition

    $1.87 is about half of $3.75.

    I think it would have been more beneficial if the Guild had complained about the NY pubs move to 25% net when it mattered instead of complaining about it now.

  4. Hestia
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 09:49:04

    I can only speak for myself in this, but the biggest thing preventing me from buying more books is the economy. Since Governor Walker took office in Wisconsin, my family has been hit by his education policies: each year for the last three years, we have brought home less money than the year before. (And I am an aide, so I make very little to begin with.)

    After finishing my taxes this year, I had to really sit down and figure out where I can cut, and of course books are on the chopping block. I love buying books, both ebook and print. But I have to make cuts, and paying to have my own copies of books is among the first. (We all do pay for library books, of course. To say that they are free is just not true.)

    I am not whining; we are fine, and doing better than many. But I am concerned about our future; if things go on as they are, my position may be cut. I have to save money now. I know many people are in this position: making less money now and very concerned about future employment.

    I have to think a stronger, more stable economy would really benefit authors and publishers. Maybe Turow and his like should stop worrying about the small potatoes of digital piracy and library use, and join in the fight for better economic policies all around.

  5. Jen
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 11:08:56

    I’m a librarian too and this is a constant criticism of libraries–that we’re taking money from authors and publishers. However, the issues is so much more complex than that, and it’s ridiculous to oversimplify. First, there’s the issue that many people who borrow books from the library either can’t or won’t buy books (ebooks OR print). Of course, people who cannot afford books aren’t going to start buying them if the library closes. They just won’t read! And there are lots of people who simply won’t buy books. Sure, if their library closed they might buy a few more, but not that many. So there’s a huge segment (maybe even the biggest segment?) of library users who aren’t causing much, if any, “lost” revenue for authors because they wouldn’t have been buying those books anyway. Few people have limitless book budgets, so to act like voracious readers should just buy all their books is pretty ridiculous. Clearly that’s out of bounds even for relatively well-funded readers. I think this is especially important for new and mid-level authors. If someone had to pay full price for all their books, they’d probably not take many chances on unknown authors. They’d stick to the stuff they know. Then there’s also the issue of how libraries influence sales positively. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of good data on this because it would be nearly impossible to study comprehensively, but certainly there are lots of people who buy more books by an author they first read at the library. Libraries also do a lot to promote books and reading in general as well as specific titles/authors through awards and reviews–those activities benefit all authors, but of course it’s impossible to quantify that effect. In the absence of data, libraries because an easy target. (And the other huge can of worms is the benefit libraries bring to society in terms of literacy–that’s even more nebulous.)

    I also don’t understand that argument about piracy. I keep hearing authors mention it, but I rarely ever hear readers attempting it. (Unlike how I see and hear people pirating music and TV/movies–that’s prevalent.) It’s different for textbook and required-reading books, I would agree. There is some pirated content out there, though even in those cases it’s not common. But I’ve actually looked, and your average novel does not have pirated copies out there. Who would be putting in the time and effort to copy and distribute/host such books? A major, very popular best seller? Maybe. But most books are not major, popular best sellers.

  6. Darlynne
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 11:29:54

    I’m not sorry Turow is getting thumped around the internet. There is none so blind, and all that. If he can’t see the truth of library lending, secondhand books and the legal buying of digital books, then he and his arguments become irrelevant.

    And I may have missed it, but if he has issues about royalties, isn’t that something to address with the publishers, you know, the people who’ve brought us to this mess in the first place?

  7. Jane
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 11:30:59

    @Nadia Lee: The problem with Turow’s argument now, though, is that he actively praised Agency pricing. I’m sure that the AG filed a public comment urging a denial of the settlement.

  8. Tessa Dare
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 12:19:29

    I’m a librarian and an author, and these arguments always mystify me. The way Turow paints the situation, the two sides of myself should be conflicted and want different things. But I have never felt that way. Is it pollyanna of me to believe that what’s good for libraries is good for authors and vice versa?

    For all the reasons Jen outlines, I can’t imagine that inhibiting library borrowing would do anything but hurt my income as an author. (The one thing I would counter is that it’s true almost all books are available as pirated downloads, whether they are popular bestsellers or not.)

    Libraries not only purchase our books, they grow our customer base. I owned very few books when I was young, even though I was a voracious reader — I developed my reading habit almost solely through school and public library collections. It wasn’t until I was older with a steady income that I began purchasing my own books, and now I spend a significant amount on books each year. And I still use the library, too.

    A healthy, robust culture of reading is what sustains authors, and libraries are a key part of that.

  9. Susanna Kearsley
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 12:41:16

    What Tessa said. Because she said it brilliantly.

  10. Ros
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 16:25:26

    @Jen: I don’t know why people do it, but they really do. Both my self-published books have been pirated and made available through torrent sites. Sometimes even when they have been free through legitimate bookshops! Geographical restrictions is a factor sometimes (though not for my books). Otherwise, I got nothing. But it definitely happens.

  11. Ros
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 16:26:44

    I guess my bigger question on this is why is anyone listening to Turow? He seems utterly clueless about the publishing industry.

  12. Anon
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 17:27:00

    I think there is one thing Turow is right about. The current publishing system is paying most authors less and less. Many authors I know are receiving the same advances as they were receiving ten or more years ago. And, of course, in real dollars this is less. Further, many are earning no more than the advance.

    Publishers say this is because with fewer bookstores and the limited scope of discount stores, the channels are limited. Additionally, e-books have not been as big an area of growth for many authors as they have been for publishers. Ebooks are cheaper to produce for publishers, and for many (digital first/only) lines there are no advances for authors.

    Publishers have also flooded the market with ebooks – throwing all against the wall and they make money from whatever sells. While authors who enter this ‘so-called’ partnership, with publishers who pay no/small advances, produce all the product and take the brunt of the risk. (We have learned from many blogs by self-pubbed authors that the cost of covers/editing/formatting is not significant).

    And while digital royalties *can* be higher percentage wise, net is not always simply defined as what the publisher receives. Net can include various costs (see above editing/cover/formatting) that the publisher provided.

  13. Sunny
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 17:39:31

    His point about being able to Google free e-books is ridiculous — did he actually try to download his own book from any of the sites that popped up? He won’t be able to. They’re all scam sites dedicated to phishing, requiring people to create an account or download all sorts of “helpful” programs. Even sites that are supposedly legit have this trust issue, and for most people figuring out the difference isn’t going to be an easy learning process. For the people who do, they’re dedicated enough to getting that book for free that they weren’t going to buy it anyhow!

    Search engines really aren’t the problem, nor are the “Free Ebook” sites that show up on them — they’re scams, plain and simple. I’m not saying piracy doesn’t exist for ebooks, but it doesn’t seem to have anywhere near the same userbase as other forms of media.

    For our games, we expect to sell about 7 million, expect about 1-2 million copies to be pirated, and expect another 2-3 million to be purchased used. This is to pay 400 or so people for 5 years. Maybe it’s similar percentages for ebooks but scaled way, way down.

  14. Courtney
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 17:53:42

    I strongly disagree with the library statement. For me, my library has actually increased by book purchases, both print and ebooks. When I’m interested in an author, I first try and borrow the book from the library (and my library allows us to borrow digital/e copies as well) and if I like the author, I typically subsequently will purchase his/her books, both backlist and future books. Is the author losing out on that initial sale? Yes, but s/he is picking up my future purchases if I enjoy his/her work. If I can’t try an author’s work first, absent a very compelling recommendation from someone I trust, I’m not going to buy that author’s books. I’ve been burned too many times before equating a “bestseller” with a book I’d connect with.

    I also think libraries serve the greater good – bringing books to the masses and contributing to other community programs (our libraries have lots of programs to help people learn how to read, use the internet, find a job, etc.)

  15. Patricia
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 18:41:43

    Jen’s statement that there isn’t a lot of data on whether libraries positively influence sales got me thinking. What would a well designed study on that issue look like? To me it seems blindingly obvious that libraries build readers who go on to buy lots of books, but clearly people like Mr. Turow need more numbers to back that up. I would want to see a comparison between sales of similar books that are and are not currently available through libraries in digital form, as well as the current buying, borrowing and pirating practices of people who used various library services earlier in their lives.

  16. Donna Thorland
    Apr 14, 2013 @ 22:57:24


    I know that geographic restrictions played a role in the pirating of my book. It popped up on every pirate site in existence when a UK author tweeted my trailer…but the book wasn’t out yet in the UK and bam! Pirated copies sprung up everywhere.

    The kicker: someone took the trouble to crack the book in every available format and embed the free trailer inside the files so you could watch and read.

    Yup. The same trailer you could watch in high def, for free, all over the internet compressed into an itsy bitsy thumbnail player screen on the title page of the ebook…

    Why? I think it must be the technical challenge. Not only can he or she crack the DRM, they can make the ebook sit up and do tricks.

  17. Ros
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 03:25:30

    @Donna Thorland: Yes, I think there’s a lot of that. It’s the hacker mentality – wanting to see how far you can get the technology to go.

    If publishers were serious about cracking down on piracy, getting rid of geographical restrictions would surely be the first step. There was a commenter here who said that a lot of people in Russia don’t even realise that you are supposed to pay for ebooks because so few are available legally there, whereas the pirate sites have everything for free.

  18. Nadia Lee
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 06:47:26

    @Jane: I’m pretty sure he thought agency pricing would lead to slower adoption of ebooks and/or resurgence of print or something.

  19. P. Kirby
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 11:41:15

    Meh. Pretty much every argument I’ve seen against libraries has been proffered by someone who is high on privilege and low on brains. Literally. I think they keep their brains, and possibly their empathy for other human beings, in their ass.

    I’m certain that libraries help generate sales for authors. But even if they didn’t, so what? The point of public libraries isn’t to make Turow, et. al rich, but rather to increase literacy in the general population by providing reading materials free (in as much as they can be free, since they are supported by public monies). And a literate populace is a more productive populace, and more likely to have the financial means to purchase books.

    If Turow’s opinion pieces are any measure of his grasp of logic and research abilities, I’m glad I’ve never read any of his books. Never will, either.

  20. Kiahzoe
    Apr 15, 2013 @ 21:01:13

    The other thing that gets missed about libraries is that they buy books. There are something like 8000 public libraries across the country. If all of them buy one copy of a print or digital book, that is 8000 copies sold.

    In the past midlist authors were able to survive because libraries bought their books. That has changed a bit, for a variety of reasons. Library budgets are tighter and they have to purchase more carefully and with the variety of formats available; print, audio, digital, etc. dollars are stretched.

    But libraries are still buying books. And it is still one copy equals one checkout at a time. It doesn’t matter which format. If my library wants to allow multiple people to check out the same title, then we have to buy multiple copies. So this myth of library users being able to all check out the same one copy of an ebook at the same time is just that, a myth.

    And even though our digital copies can only be checked out by one person at a time, publishers continue trying to add ‘friction’ to the process. Penguin hates Amazon so users have to use a cord and manually transfer a kindle book. Another publisher allows 26checkouts then requires the library to buy another copy (even though print books can last long past that point). Others are charging huge prices. It goes on.

    Others have discussed how libraries promote reading and even cause people to go out and buy other books. All true.

  21. Jen
    Apr 16, 2013 @ 15:55:34

    Well I stand corrected about the pirated copies! I have searched before but it was admittedly half heartedly because I was only looking out of curiosity and not the desire to steal. I agree then about pirated copies–that’s an issue!

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