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.
- Search engines lead to piracy sites.
- Libraries encourage the free distribution of books and the incentive to buy is gone.
- Publishers give low royalties.*
- 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.