The Authors Guild Wants You…But Should You Want Them?


Novelist Richard Russo
Novelist Richard Russo

The Author’s Guild has started a membership drive and the centerpiece is a letter from author Richard Russo, who talks about all of the evils the Guild is protecting us from and all the good things they do for writers. The Guild does some good, that’s true. Their legal services are hugely helpful to authors, especially those who otherwise couldn’t afford lawyers. But lately, I’ve been dismayed, and at times outraged, by the Guild’s wrong-headed stance towards Amazon and ebooks… and am seriously considering *not* renewing my membership to demonstrate my disagreement. The Guild’s antiquated thinking, misrepresentations, and outright fear-mongering is very hard to take or to justify.  At times, they seem more interested in protecting publishers and agents than the interests of any writer who isn’t already a superstar. My friend Joe Konrath summed up my feeling well on his blog today:

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.

In that blog post,  Joe and Barry Eisler go through Richard Russo’s wrong-headed letter point-by-point and do an excellent job revealing the flaws in his arguments (all of which seems to be based on his own fears and baseless assumptions rather than any actual facts). What follows are two excerpts from Richard’s letter interspersed with Joe & Barry’s rebuttals:

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 Eisler
Barry Eisler

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 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?

I am not in complete lock-step with the opinions expressed by my friends Joe and Barry. For example, they don’t see piracy as a threat to the livelihoods of novelists and other artists. I certainly do, though I don’t copy-protect my books (except THE HEIST, but that’s outside of my control). That may seem like a contradiction, but I want people to be able to read my book on whatever device they own. And I believe the book culture is one that’s historically been built on people sharing books they love — essentially “hand selling” without exchanging currency — with their friends. What bothers me is when I find my books on file sharing sites being downloaded by the thousands and I don’t see a penny. What I’m sure Joe and Barry would argue is that it’s evidence of my popularity, that I am now gaining thousands of new fans who will eventually buy one of my books and spread positive word of mouth. They may be right, but I’m not convinced yet. I think if someone can download all 15 of my Monk books with one click that they will wait until they can find my new books for free rather than buy them. But I have no evidence to support that fear…nor, I suspect, do Joe and Barry have any to support their belief that piracy enhances sales.

Regardless of my disagreements with some of their stances, and the fact that their dissection of Richard’s letter may be a little too strident and snarky at times, overall they make some very strong, intelligent, and persuasive points that are well worth your consideration. And yes, I am speaking to you, Authors Guild.

8 thoughts on “The Authors Guild Wants You…But Should You Want Them?”

  1. Fabulous. Absolutely fabulous. The technology is cutting-edge. The morality is cutting-edge. There’s all different points of view. There’s legacy people, there’s ebook people, there’s you, there’s pirates. The issues are edgy. Nothing is certain. And you are ‘dismayed’ and ‘outraged’ and want to express it — THIS is the treatment of your next murder mystery novel. It’ll succeed due to the depth you bring to the issue and all the emotion you’ve got swirling inside.

    But don’t quit the Author’s Guild. That would be making the second mistake because they made the first mistake. You get lots of protection and services from them. So why should you have to give that up just because of some of THEIR mistaken policies? You shouldn’t. You shouldn’t lose anything at all.

  2. I’m in agreement with you regarding copyright protection. I generally agree with Joe and Barry on most things, and in this lengthy blog I do, but I’m not in agreement with them about piracy. I am not aware of anybody pirating my copies (alas, also an indication of my popularity), but it’s hard for me to see it as a good thing if they did overall. I actually do believe that copyright and trademark protection is important. It’s been very complicated by digital media, but let’s point out a historical precedent that might get people thinking about this. Charles Dickens made little or no money from his books in the U.S. despite being a bestseller. The U.S. at that time was a big copyright stealer and his books were being reprinted without him getting a penny (or shilling, I suppose). So he came to the U.S., toured and gave speeches, and made his money in the U.S. that way. I don’t think that’s the way we want writing to go. In some circumstances that’s happening in the music industry, that musicians at least at the lower level, support their albums by touring, rather than the relatively short-lived business model where the album supported the tour.

    • As a book hoarder who goes no where without a book in hand or my Kindle. Amazon’s Kindle to me is the greatest thing ever made for book readers, it’s expanded the genre’s I read, expanded my favorite authors, love the great deals be it a free eBook, $0.99, $1.99, $2.99, etc: it’s all good, amazon’s a gold mine for readers to explore and you have tons of eBooks that are even better written than some of the published books.
      I disagree with Richard, just don’t see how he wouldn’t embrace eBooks, see the value in it or afford not to. My bigger reason is, two years ago I never heard of J.A., and oh I did see Barry’s books, although I never took the time to read any of them. Then my wife got me a Kindle for Christmas, I regret not reading Barry sooner, my introduction to J.A. was a free one from the Jack Daniels series, add a few more free ones, but I took advantage of his backlist being $3.99 or less, and now only lack a handful or less of his books. So thank you J.A. for making your backlist of books available to me at such a generous price.
      Another positive is, for example two of my favorite authors Paul Levine and Julie Smith have made all their books, available again, put them back in print so to speak using eBooks and eliminated hunting for them at used book stores. It’s also exciting to see authors, like L.J. Sellers who I discover again via a free eBook, pre-order her new ones now, have everything she’s written and go from just eBooks, to having her books available in paperback.
      I think Publishers probably wish they made themselves more competitive by competing with the Indy authors, even price themselves better and they could make millions of pricing older books better in the eBook format.
      Regarding pirating, name anything that doesn’t have people trying to find away to cheat. Finding a site were you aren’t in harms way, is more difficult than you think. I’m not basing this on my own experience, but rather from work and what I’ve heard mentioned to me. I know co-workers who have had to replace their computers from downloading pirated eBooks, two even even lost entire articles they needed to turn in for publishing for their residences they were in, others lost everything on their computers and others the expense of getting their computer virus free. Not to mention enabling anyone to get your public information. Even in paperback format piracy gets done, actually know someone that photocopied Veterinary books, have heard were people have taken apart hardcovers or paperbacks, then scanned them onto their computer shared with family and friends or all the paperbacks that get stolen by the covers being tore off.
      Just remember, the majority or more of your readers got your writing honestly by buying it, learn from the music industry by starting a group of authors who work together to make the eBook craze better, keep it the way it is now and use technology to eliminate piracy.

  3. Those of us of a certain age look back upon the literary world that the Guild was a part of with great tenderness. It’s almost gone now. That was when publishing was as much art as commerce. The commerce persists, but the art is mostly gone. Mr. Russo, a Pulitzer-winner, was and is a part of that diminished world. That was when good editors helped authors say things well, with nuanced, lyrical, lucid, evocative language. It was the world in which Scribners editor Max Perkins could develop the talents of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and many others of great ability. You don’t see much of that in the $2.99 Amazon swamplands now, and I miss it. Being a published author back then made me more than a hack; it gave me the credentials of selfhood, voice and art. The Guild’s legal staff helped me once, as a service for members. I’ve always been grateful.

    • There’s a lot of time (and systemic degradation) in publishing between Maxwell Perkins and Amazon. Not to mention the fact that Maxwell Perkins was a singular, and atypical, individual even in his day. The art and romance of the book trade, if they have diminished, did so under the auspices of corporate publishing well before there was even such a thing as an ebook. And the fact that authors can now more freely release their work in the form they choose, and earn a higher cut of the profits, may well make for a more artistically fertile publishing ecosystem. I suspect that’s the case.

  4. The Authors Guild is nothing but the 1%. If any author joins the Authors Guild are going to be hated and boycotted by their fans.

    The Authors Guild is nothing but a bunch of Luddites want to kill technology to save their tree killing paperback books.

    I am planning to become an author, but I am never going to join the Guild and turn my back against my fans. The Authors Guild can take their crony Capital money and shove it. In fact, I think its time to force the Authors Guild to pay their fair share by stripping away their 501c status, so that the money they earned can go to better use for the middle class.

    • Readers don’t care if an author is a member of the Authors Guild or not. It’s utterly absurd to think fans will rebel against an author who is a member. Why, exactly, would a fan give a damn if you’re a member of the Authors Guild, or the Mystery Writers of America, or PEN, or the Writers Guild or any other professional writers organization?


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