Food for Writerly Thought

Way back in the dark ages when Eggs for Young America was published, an older, wiser writer friend suggested that I join The Authors Guild, the national organization that serves as “published writer’s advocate for effective copyright, fair contracts, and free expression.”  I was living overseas at the time, dial-up was my primary and maddening means of communication — I meant to, really.  But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and besides, I figured, full of naivety and hubris, wouldn’t I soon have an agent who would agitate for my “effective copyright, fair contracts, and free expression”?

Wasn’t that  how the writer’s life was supposed to work?

Well…let’s just say that these are very different times.  I joined The Authors Guild last year.  (One moral to this story, Young Writer, might be:  listen to those mentors!)  As a member, I received an “Open Letter to My Fellow Authors” from author Richard Russo yesterday.

Russo asks that authors forward his letter to other writers, in the hopes that they’ll see the benefit having a “united voice” and to joining The Guild.   It’s interesting reading —  not just for those who make books (i.e., “content producers”) but also for anyone who reads books.  Who likes books.

Especially right now,  when so many of us are a mouse-click away from buying books.

A couple of days before I was a bookseller for a day for Small Business Saturday, I sent a broadcast email to folks in Atlanta to let them know about the event. Less than an hour after I sent my email, I received two announcements in my own inbox:  First, that the elementary campus Scholastic Book Fair would be in two weeks.  Second, that Big Chain  would donate money to a cause near-and-dear if books were purchased there on a certain day.

I wondered how I’d feel, going through all these messages vying for my dollars, if I weren’t a writer, if I were a harried parent with less personal investment in the publishing industry who just needed to cross book-buying off my to-do list. What to do?

I’ll be honest, I imagined that I might feel just a tad … peevish.  I just want to get my kid what they want!  Why does every purchase I make have to be a political (or a moral or an ethical) act?

We say:  I just don’t want to know how the sausage gets made.  

But maybe at this point, averting our eyes from the way the cultural, social and economic sausage gets made is a luxury. You can still eat and enjoy the sausage, but you’ve got to acknowledge, at least on some level, just what might be being ground up to get it made.  And then — you’ve got decide — a personal decision — which you care most about:  the pig?  the person who processes it?  the storefront where it’s sold?

These are not easily answerable questions. But maybe the conversation about them has become supremely important:

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. 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.

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. Not everyone believes, as I do, that the writing life is endangered by the downward pressure of e-book pricing, by the relentless, ongoing erosion of copyright protection, by the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them, by the “information wants to be free” crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to on-line sites that sell pirated (read “stolen”) books, and even by militant librarians who see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to “lend” our e-books without restriction. 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.

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. Anecdotal evidence is marshaled in support of this view (statistical evidence to follow). Those of us who are alarmed, we’re told, are, well, alarmists. Time will tell who’s right, but surely it can’t be a good idea for writers to stand on the sidelines while our collective fate is decided by others. 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. 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. 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. Somehow, we’re even losing the war for hearts and minds. When we defend copyright, we’re seen as greedy. When we justly sue, we’re seen as litigious. When we attempt to defend the physical book and stores that sell them, we’re seen as Luddites. Our altruism, when we’re able to summon it, is too often seen as self-serving.

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. 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. To that end we’d do well to speak with one voice, though it’s here we demonstrate our greatest weakness. 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. The writing life is ours to defend. Protecting it also happens to be the mission of the Authors Guild, 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. 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.

Richard Russo
December 2013

The Author’s Guild.  

Atlanta bookstores, from the hyperlocal to the local:

Bound to be Read Books

Charis Books

A Cappella Books

Little Shop of Stories