One of the more Orwellian aspects of the book world is the number of publisher advocate groups calling themselves Author This and Author That. The Authors Guild, Authors United, the Association of Authors' Representatives... their devotion to protecting the interests of authors is right there in the names, right? No further inquiry necessary.
That's the idea behind the misleading nomenclature, anyway. But even a cursory glance at the behavior of all these "author" organizations reveals their true priorities and actual allegiances.
Let's start with the Authors Guild, which claims to "have served as the collective voice of American authors," and which describes its mission as "to support working writers. We advocate for the rights of writers by supporting free speech, fair contracts, and copyright. We create community and we fight for a living wage." The Authors Guild even proudly notes that it "has initiated lawsuits in defense of authors' rights, where necessary."
Leave aside the wooly talk about creating community. How does the collective voice of American authors, the supporter of working writers, the advocate for the rights of writers, go about fighting for that living wage? Especially given that publishers are making more money from digital books than ever, and sharing less of that money with authors than ever.
Well, the organization has periodically mentioned in passing that the shockingly low lockstep 17.5% legacy publisher digital royalty rate "needs to change," so there's that. Sometimes a spokesperson expresses his or her "hopes" for a little more fairness. And recently they did manage a whole blog post on the topic. But that's all. Occasional words; zero deeds. And likewise regarding a host of other obvious, longstanding, outrageous legacy publisher abuses such as life-of-copyright (forever) terms, twice-yearly payment provisions, draconian non-compete clauses, and impossible out-of-print clauses. Pro forma words and practiced complicity.
But does all this mean the Authors Guild is lying when it says it sometimes initiates lawsuits?
Not at all. The organization did sue Google and Hathitrust over digitization (the first suit was settled; in the second, the Authors Guild lost). Leave aside the merits of those suits; I think they were wrongheaded, but that's not the point. The point is that when the Authors Guild really wants to throw down, it throws down — just never against legacy publishers and the Rich Relationships™ by which they systematically screw authors (in fact, in the Google suit, the Authors Guild fought alongside the Association of American Publishers).
Indeed, at the moment when the Authors Guild had maximum leverage over legacy publishers to extract some actual digital royalty and contract provision concessions — during Hachette's contract standoff with Amazon — the organization surrendered that leverage and threw all its Collective Voice of American Authors weight behind Hachette. Even though Hachette's position was costing authors money; even though Amazon had repeatedly offered to compensate any authors who were being harmed by the standoff.
What's doubly bizarre about the Authors Guild's reflexive anti-Amazon animus is that Amazon stands for so much of what the Authors Guild claims to want. A pristine example: as I write this, the organization bleats on its home page that "Half of Net Proceeds is the Fair Royalty Rate for E-Books," while two lines down it calls on the government to investigate Amazon…for paying exactly that fair royalty!
Not only does the Authors Guild refuse to stand up to publishers; it actively supports them (while censoring the authors it claims to represent). I challenge you to review the organization's public positions and find a way to distinguish them from what you would expect in a legacy publisher press release. I'm being literal here — legacy publishers and the Authors Guild actually do cite and cross-post each other's press releases. Here's an example — the Authors Guild, approvingly posting on its own site a press release from John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan, who in the release approvingly quotes Scott Turow, then president of the Authors Guild. It's really that incestuous between the New York Big Five and the Collective Voice of American Authors.
If the Authors Guild really wanted to "advocate for fair contracts," it would support self-publishing, which even more than Amazon publishing is empowering authors with the first real competition the industry has ever seen — a 70% digital royalty rate (four times the lockstep legacy standard); control over packaging and other business decisions; faster time to market. Yet there's nothing on the Authors Guild website about how to use KDP, Kobo, NookPress, Smashwords, or any other self-publishing resource. Nothing about AuthorEarnings.com, the most comprehensive breakdown available about where authors are making money in Amazon-, legacy- and self-publishing. The only "self-publishing" resource available through the Collective Voice of American Authors has been a notorious scam outfit called (naturally) Author Solutions (a relationship the Authors Guild finally terminated in May).
(Novelist David Gaughran has been tireless in exposing Author Solutions' shady practices — see the preceding links — and the refusal of establishment publishing media to follow up on his work is at least as revealing as anything else in this article about where true power lies in the industry. Within that refusal there's a great story for an intrepid journalist about concentrated media ownership, how advertising dollars buy silence, and why establishments are so reluctant to examine their own shadiest practices.)
Authors United is no different. Against abysmally low digital royalties, Authors United might offer up a bit of pro forma tut-tutting. But the organization's only real action — in the form of petitions, monster ads in the New York Times, media blitzes assisted by pet stenographers, letters to boards of directors, and letters to the Department of Justice pleading for protection for publishers — is against the company that has sold more books than any other, that has opened up publishing to more authors than ever before, that pays higher royalties than any legacy publisher, that is making more money for more authors than ever before, that pays authors once a month instead of twice a year, that gives authors unprecedented access to sales data, that almost single-handedly ushered in the digital book revolution — Amazon.
All of which is more than a little weird just on the face of it. But it gets even weirder — and more telling — when you consider the animating principles Authors United claims in the anti-Amazon screed it recently sent to the Justice Department:
[We can't have a company using] its technologically supercharged monopoly powers to manipulate and supervise the sale of books and therefore affect the exchange of ideas in America…
The government has the responsibility to maintain an open, competitive, free, unsupervised, and undistorted market for books…
Our larger point is that we believe the Antitrust Division needs to reassess…overwhelming market power [regarding] any business that has established effective control of a medium of communication…
We believe these steps would restore freedom of choice, competition, vitality, diversity, and free expression in the American book market, while ensuring that the American people—as individual free citizens and as a democratic community—determine for themselves how to take advantage of the new technologies of the 21st Century…
Lofty principles! But given that Amazon's self-publishing platform enables all authors to publish whatever they like and leaves it to readers to decide what books they themselves find beneficial, while the New York Big Five (no concentrated market power in a group with a name like that!) has historically rejected probably 999 books for every one they deem worthy of reaching the public, a few questions present themselves. Such as:
- Who has really been manipulating and supervising the sale of books and therefore affecting the exchange of ideas in America, and who has really established effective control of a medium of communication — an entity that screens out 99.9% of books, or one that has enabled the publication of any book?
- Who has really been running an uncompetitive, controlled, supervised, distorted market for books — a company dedicated to lower prices, or a group calling itself the Big Five that has been found guilty of conspiracy and price fixing
- Who is really restoring freedom of choice, competition, vitality, diversity, and free expression in the American book market — an entity that consigns to oblivion 999 books out of a thousand, or one that enables the publication of all of them?
- And who is really ensuring that the American people determine for themselves how to take advantage of the new technologies of the 21st Century — an entity responsible for zero innovation and dedicated to preserving the position of paper, or one that has popularized a new publishing and reading platform that for the first time offers readers an actual choice of formats?
Measured against every one of the lofty principles Authors United claims to champion, the Big Five is a historical disaster; Amazon, a reformist boon. The organization decries Amazon's alleged abuse of its publisher suppliers (monopsony!), yet offers not even a word about how legacy publishers consistently abuse their own suppliers — the group commonly known as authors. Against legacy publisher abuses, silence; against the company that offers an alternative to those abuses, coordinated, well-funded attacks by a stable of celebrity authors (accompanied by admittedly hilarious claims to be "not taking sides").
Follow any of the links above to the various positions Authors United has taken, and repeat that handy "how do these positions differ from those of any legacy publisher?" exercise. You'll see almost complete redundancy between the positions of Authors United and those of, say, the Association of American Publishers. They might as well be the same organization. The only real difference is that one honestly declares that it represents the interests of publishers, while the other dishonestly pretends to represent the interests of authors.
Now let's look at the Association of Authors' Representatives, which, judging from what it has named itself, one might reasonably imagine is in the business of representing the interests of…authors.
So: when the Justice Department and 16 States Attorneys General charged the New York Big Five with colluding to fix prices, did the AAR cheer? No. Instead, they lobbied the Justice Department on behalf of the publishers. And when three of the Big Five settled with the Department of Justice, did the AAR, say, offer a public statement on behalf of the authors whose interests price-fixing had damaged? No. Instead, it protested the settlement “in the strongest possible terms” in a letter to the DOJ…on behalf of the publishers.
But when Penguin and Random House merged — inarguably increasing the already Olympian clout of the Big Five relative to authors, narrowing author alternatives, concentrating market power, diminishing choice, empowering a company notorious for scamming authors, etc., did the AAR write to the Justice Department to oppose the merger? Did the organization take any meaningful action at all?
And has this organization that purports to represent authors ever protested “in the strongest possible terms” any of the longstanding, widespread, abusive publisher practices noted above?
Against actual legacy publisher abuses, tepid words at best. In support of legacy publisher collusion, The Strongest Possible Terms.
All of which gives the lie to the oft-repeated Authors United claim that Amazon “retaliates” against authors. There’s no evidence at all for this charge; in fact, were it true, it’s hard to imagine how the books of every Authors United member, even those of floridly outspoken Authors United pitchman Doug Preston, would be available on Amazon, despite all the crazy accusations and anti-Amazon advocacy. These “author” organizations demonstrably have no fear at all of crossing Amazon. But the one group they never cross is the New York Big Five. Which is about all you need to know about where real retaliation, and real power, lies in the book industry.
Sometimes making a name misleadingly vague can serve an organization’s tactical interests — think the National Security Agency (it wouldn't do to call it the National Surveillance Agency) or the Chamber of Commerce (can't very well call itself the Big Business Lobbyist). Other times, organizations deliberately choose names that are the opposite of reality — calling a surveillance law the Freedom Act, for example, or a group dedicated to preventing gay marriage calling itself the National Organization for Marriage. It's the latter tradition in which all these allegedly author-centric groups belong. To call out their real priorities, their primary affiliations, in their names would be to reduce their effectiveness.
Now look, there’s nothing wrong with lobbying the government on behalf of big publishers. The First Amendment guarantees the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, after all, and it doesn’t say those grievances can’t be self-serving or even that they have to be sane. I just wish all these organizations pretending to advocate for authors would call themselves something a little more honest. Power in publishing is already horrendously lopsided. Publisher lobbyists masquerading as author champions only makes things worse.