By Eric Olsen
A recent New York Times column by Scott Turow, the attorney, novelist, and head of the Author’s Guild, is titled “The Slow Death of the American Author.” I was tempted to skip it, since pundits of one sort or another have for centuries been going on and on about the death of the author, or the death of the novel, or the death of literacy, or the death of literature, or the death of this and the death of that. No doubt some proto-human storyteller, squatting by a fire gnawing a mammoth knuckle and scratching at his lice declared in some grunted proto-language that the death of storytelling was imminent. But this piece in The Times was by Turow, and when Turow speaks, one listens.
In Turow’s view, the American author is endangered because those right-wingers on the Supreme Court, brainwashed into believing all that Chicago-school crap and every word Milton Friedman ever wrote, have once again figured out a way to further weaken the Constitution, screw the middle class, subvert democracy, and enrich the already rich, this time allowing the:
…importation and resale of foreign editions of American works, which are often cheaper than domestic editions. Until now, courts have forbidden such activity as a violation of copyright. Not only does this ruling open the gates to a surge in cheap imports, but since they will be sold in a secondary market, authors won’t get royalties.”
And, of course, it gets worse. Turow points out that writers are also getting badly screwed out of e-book royalties by collusion among the six major publishing houses, and Amazon and Google, and the hundreds if not thousands of offshore websites devoted to pirating e-books, while the Justice Department does its thing and looks the other way. Turow doesn’t offer any remedies for the problem; he just states the facts. Of e-books, he says:
They are much less expensive for publishers to produce: there are no printing, warehousing or transportation costs, and unlike physical books, there is no risk that the retailer will return the book for full credit.”
But instead of using the savings to be more generous to authors, the six major publishing houses — five of which were sued last year by the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division for fixing e-book prices — all rigidly insist on clauses limiting e-book royalties to 25 percent of net receipts. That is roughly half of a traditional hardcover royalty.
Of course, all those supply-siders and Chicago-school economists out there will just argue that such changes are the nature of markets, quit your bellyaching, so what if writers have no alternative but to write for the love of it instead of a buck?
But as Turow points out:
‘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.”
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