Blame authors' fortunes on monopolism, not university professors, booksellers and librarians — UPDATED

The New York Times weighs in on an Authors Guild survey that shows a "drastic 42% decline in authors' earnings over the past decade. John Scalzi offers some important perspective.

Here's the summary:

* Authors Guild: authors' incomes are way down, thanks to Amazon's monopolism, which is crushing indies and traditionally published authors alike; universities are relying on fair use and Google Books for coursepacks, and big tech overall is "devalu[ing] what we produce to lower their costs for content distribution."

* New York Times: yeah, it's mostly Amazon.

* Scalzi: This isn't a very good study. They surveyed 5,000-ish, self-selected authors (and the Science Fiction Writers of America didn't participate). Comparing the fortunes of authors today to Hemingway may not be very representative — think instead of writers like John Brunner, who lived a writerly life that's pretty recognizable to writers today. Was there really ever a gilded age of writerly incomes, or just a bunch of survivor bias?

My take: Amazon and the other monopolists are a huge problem. But big tech isn't uniformly culpable. Facebook and Twitter are certainly big social problems, but, they're not hurting authors. The idea of "devaluing what we produce" by letting people talk to each other for free is incoherent, intellectually bankrupt nonsense, ripped from the pages of "Home taping is killing music" and "Home cooking is killing restaurants."

Also a problem: consolidation in publishing (we're down to five big publishers, and rumor has it that Simon and Shuster will be a subsidiary of Harper Collins within a year). Consolidation in bookselling (letting the chains merge until only B&N existed was great for looter hedge-fund sociopaths, not so much for bookselling).

The Authors Guild recommendations are a mixed bag. Letting authors unionize and negotiate for good rates with Amazon is a great idea.

Update: I've been discussing this with AG president James Glieck in email, and he has corrected my views on the AG's position here. He says that the AG's public lending right campaign would be contingent on the libraries receiving a separate tranche of funding to pay for it, ensuring that libraries aren't hurt by administering the PLR. He also advocates making the collection of circulation data by libraries optional, and says that despite the name, the Guild's "Lending Right" campaign is not meant to imply that authors should have the right to decide who can lend or borrow their books, analogizing it to "a new entitlement program for authors, aimed at helping preserve an endangered species."

This is much better than I believed. That said, I think it's a dangerous proposal: as we saw in the UK, as libraries are starved of funds in conditions of austerity, commitments to maintain lending right payments separate from library operational/acquisitions budgets evaporate. Ultimately, governments come to think of libraries' funding coming from a single pool, and when it's time to shrink that pool, the idea of separation goes out the window.

As said below, I think it's needlessly complex to create a system for compensating authors that give author money to libraries and then asks libraries to give it to authors. If we want to pay authors, let's just apportion funds to them, preferably in forms that benefit us as a class, like retirement homes for the arts, medical insurance pools, mortgage guarantees, etc.

Establishing a lending right that charges libraries for the right to lend books is a terrible idea. If we're going to fund authorship through state grants (which I totally, absolutely support), let's break up digital (and publishing!) monopolists, make them pay their fair share of taxes, and fund the NEA and other institutions. But attacking libraries' funding in the midst of the human race's neoliberal extermination crisis is an attack on literally the only institution left in the country where you are welcome even if you're not spending money or praying.

It's not just libraries that the AG is taking aim at, it's also booksellers. The AG is worried about returned books entering the stream of new book sales. This is, as far as I can tell, not a problem. Making life harder for indie bookstores will not win the AG any friends. Librarians and indie booksellers are authors' class allies, as are university professors. Our adversaries should be the tax-dodging, Fortune 100 Big Tech/Big Content vampire squids with their blood-funnels jammed down our collective throats.

This is a category error that is often made by copyright maximalists when they argue over "piracy" and tech: they locate the problem with readers, technology, public lending, etc — not with monopoly capitalism that reduces the competition for our works and starves the public coffers of the social safety net that has made a career in the arts survivable in years gone by. The problem with Big Tech is "big," not "tech."

Brunner's tale here is anecdotal, and as with all anecdotes one should be careful not to make more of it than it is. But at the same time, as an anecdote, Brunner's tale has more to tell us about middle-class author jobbing in the 20th Century than the tale of Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner. And to bring it around to where we started with this piece, it does suggest that at all times, it's a hard time to make a living — middle-class or otherwise — solely as an author.

Is it harder now? It might be. It's different than it was fifty years ago, with different players and challenges, but also with different opportunities — it's the best time in decades to be writing novellas, for example, and the best time ever for writing work meant for the audiobook format. And if the BLS has anything to tell us, it's not the worst time ever to be a writer in a general sense, at least in the US.

Just, you know. Maybe keep your day job. Still.

Author Incomes: Not Great, Now or Then [John Scalzi/Whatever]

Authors Guild Survey Shows Drastic 42 Percent Decline in Authors Earnings in Last Decade [Authors Guild]

Does It Pay to Be a Writer? [Concepción de León/New York Times]