The Slow Death of the American Author

Scott Turow, president of The Authors Guild, has a fascinating, but depressing story in The New York Times regarding the rapidly changing publishing industry and the loss of revenue stream for authors, thanks in a large part to e-books and electronic search engines. Turow begins the article by stating authors have often been considered a fundamental part of democracy. He states:

“Authors practice one of the few professions directly protected in the Constitution, which instructs Congress ‘to promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.’ The idea is that a diverse literary culture, created by authors whose livelihoods, and thus independence, can’t be threatened, is essential to democracy.

Turow points out, however, that the livelihood of authors is being threatened because revenue streams for writing and publishing are shrinking. Turow blames this partially on e-books, stating that e-books are inexpensive to produce and the major publishing houses “all rigidly insist on clauses limited e-book royalties to 25 percent of net receipts,” which is about half of a traditional hardcover royalty. He had that many best-selling authors have the power to negotiate a higher royalty, but lesser-known authors, or mid-list authors, don’t have such power.

The article goes on to address the fact that Google recently scanned thousands and thousands of pages of copyrighted material, and authors have made no money from their work when it appears in a search. Google claims that the whole text doesn’t appear, but Turow argues that if you continue using different search words, you can ultimately read the whole text. Google is making money off of this through ad revenue, but authors don’t see a dime.

Sadly, Turow doesn’t provide any remedy to this situation, such as simply supporting bookstores and purchasing books, even if it’s only an e-book.

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