Monday, September 14, 2015

Authors Guild Report: AG Membership Impoverishes Authors (And It’s Amazon’s Fault)!

Updated Below

People sometimes tell me I’m too hard on the Authors Guild and that I should cut them some slack. And I’d like to. I really would. But it would help if the organization would try to meet me half way, or even a quarter way, instead of continuing to pump out the kind of incoherent bullshit I’m going to examine in this post.

Okay, the latest. Apparently the Authors Guild has done a study in which it concludes that “the majority of authors would be living below the Federal Poverty Level if they relied solely on income from their writing...not only are many authors earning little, they are, since 2009, also earning less.”

Now I’m no statistician (though I doubt I’m any more statistically challenged than anyone at the Authors Guild), and regardless picking apart the report’s basis isn’t what primarily interests me today. But I do have to note one thing just as an aside. Which is: it’s fascinating that the Authors Guild could rely on respondents only from its own membership—89% of whom are over 50, 64% of whom have never even experimented with self-publishing, and only 4% of whom have eschewed legacy publishing entirely—and then use these responses to draw conclusions about what’s going on for all authors.

You dont need to be an expert in self-selection bias and non-probability sampling to understand that the AG’s stunt would be a devastating methodological flaw in any study (as it is regarding reports of Association of American Publisher earnings—don’t miss the latest must-read AuthorEarnings report). But given that the most innovative and entrepreneurial writers in publishing today look at the Authors Guild as at best a punch line, the error is a showstopper. If the report demonstrates anything at all, it’s that a declining poverty-line subsistence correlates with membership in the Authors Guild. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, and maybe this is why the organization is eager to treat its respondents as somehow representative of authors generally, including authors who would laugh at the notion that they should join. Or maybe the conflation is just an unconscious attitude, a kind of “l’état, c’est moi” reflex. Either way, what the Authors Guild has done here is the equivalent of polling a group of grandparents, then using their responses to conclude something like, “No one at all can figure out how to use a remote control.”

All this is bad enough, obviously, but things actually go downhill from there. Here’s how executive director Mary Rasenberger explains the bad news:

Citing a swirl of factors, from online piracy to publisher consolidation to the rise of Amazon (and the shuttering of brick and mortar bookstores), Rasenberger said the takeaway from the survey is that authors should be receiving higher royalties from publishers. “Authors need to be cut in more equitably on the profits their publishers see, or we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built on.”

This isn’t an argument, or anything else that might be potentially useful. It’s gibberish, the flotsam and jetsam of a self-interested ideology dedicated to a conclusion and free of supporting facts. To see why, let’s just assume that the kind of author impoverishment the AG claims to have uncovered really does exist, and examine the causes the AG alleges and the solutions it suggests.

Piracy is impoverishing authors. This is such a persistent piece of foolishness that Joe Konrath and I have it cued up as one of our ongoing Zombie Meme posts (I wish we’d written the piracy post already because then I could link to it to save time, which is half the point of the Zombie Meme series). If Rasenberger has some evidence that piracy is harming authors, she should share it because simply repeating something again and again isn’t ordinarily by itself enough to make it so. As it stands, there’s no logical or empirical reason to believe piracy harms authors. And if you think I cherry-picked that link by searching for “piracy doesn’t harm authors,” I urge you to do your own search for “piracy harms authors,” which will be at least equally revealing.

Publisher consolidation is impoverishing authors. While I doubt publisher consolidation is much good for authors (which is why I’ve wondered aloud from time to time why this organization calling itself the Authors Guild has never done anything worthwhile about it), I also think that if Rasenberger has reason to believe publisher consolidation is actually impoverishing authors, she could at least share her evidence. Is consolidation correlated with fewer books being purchased, fewer authors being published, or something along those lines? If so, Rasenberger might have something worthwhile to say. As it stands, the claim is pretty feeble.

Amazon is impoverishing authors. If the previous claim was merely feeble, this one is actually insane. As a bookstore, Amazon sells more books than anyone. As a publisher, it pays higher royalties than anyone. So Rasenberger would have you believe that selling more books and paying higher royalties is impoverishing authors. Does she therefore believe that authors would be better off if Amazon sold fewer of their books and paid them lower royalties? I guess she must.

An argument this backward should function as a straight-up disqualification of anyone trying to make it. Instead, it’s reported with uncritical reverence in Publishers Weekly, which apparently is more interested in providing PR and stenographic services to groups like the AG than it is in performing actual journalism. Seriously: read the article, and ask yourself whether even one thing about it would be different if it appeared as a direct press release on the AG’s own website. My guess is, the bargained-for consideration in an exchange like this goes like, “As long as we get a sneak peek, AG, we’ll publish anything you want to say without any pushback, critical commentary, or anything else that might be confused with actual journalism.”

Though fear not, PW; in pretending to do journalism while instead performing PR and propaganda, you are of course in excellent company.

The shuttering of brick-and-mortar bookstores is impoverishing authors. Well, now I’m really confused…a minute ago, authors were being impoverished by the rise of a bookstore; now they’re impoverished when bookstores close? It’s almost as though the impoverishment is caused by everything, no matter what!

In fact, new indie bookstores are opening all the time, so the notion that on balance bookstores have been shuttering since Borders went bankrupt nearly five years ago is factually inaccurate. If Rasenberger has information about, say, Barnes & Noble reducing the amount of shelf space devoted to books, that might be a meaningful data point. Or again, even more useful would be information on the numbers of books being purchased generally, given that how many books are being purchased would seem a more meaningful metric with regard to alleged author impoverishment than where books are being purchased. And how big is the size of the book market generally? Maybe the pie is growing, but the top one percent of that market is making less, leading the one percent to feel they’re being impoverished (hint: there’s a lot of support for this notion). But something like that would require actual data and modicum of thought, which is why we’re repeatedly subjected instead to tired, internally contradictory bromides in these AG pronouncements.

Now let’s examine the proposed solution to the causes of all this author impoverishment: “Authors need to be cut in more equitably on the profits their publishers see, or we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built on.”

Wait, I thought the rise of Amazonthe publisher that pays higher royalties than any otherwas impoverishing authors. How is that possible, if the solution to author impoverishment is higher publisher royalties? Its all just so confusing!

But okay, no doubt it’s an outrage that legacy publishers are making more and more and sharing with authors less and lesswhich again makes all the more remarkable the AG’s failure to do anything about it beyond than the odd supplicatory blog post. But what does any of that have to do with piracy and all the rest? It’s like Rasenberger is throwing up a bunch of distracting chaff instead of saying what’s simply and glaringly obvious: if legacy authors are being impoverished, it’s because their publishers are keeping an ever-larger share of the profits. It has nothing to do with piracy, or consolidation, or with some bookstores rising and others opening and closing. Legacy publishers make too much and share too little.

It’s hard to understand why Rasenberger seems so intent on nonsense that obscures this obvious truth. My guess is that if the Authors Guild spoke a little more plainly, more people might wonder why the organization does virtually nothing to address the actual problem the organization itself has identified.

By the way, I confess I especially loved that bit of “we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built on” drama, as though only impoverished legacy authors write quality books (readers, apparently, disagree, which I can imagine might sting a bit among a certain class of writers). Do you hear that, ungrateful society? Après moi, le déluge!

Just to forestall any distracting silliness in the comments: I’m not arguing that the Authors Guild does absolutely nothing for authors (the truth is a bit more nuanced than that). But what mysterious force is preventing the AG from doing anything meaningful about what the organization itself claims is the cure for author impoverishment? Here, an easy idea for you, AG: contact the Justice Department. And no, not with a plea to help authors by dismantling the bookstore that sells more books than any other and the publisher that pays authors higher royalties than any other—Authors United has already cornered the market on that insanity, with your help. But rather, say, with an argument that the whole legacy industry is built on illegal tying and needs to be dismantled:

Tying…is the practice of selling one product or service as a mandatory addition to the purchase of a different product or service. In legal terms, a tying sale makes the sale of one good [say, paper distribution] to the de facto customer [here, the author] conditional on the purchase of a second distinctive good [here, all the other publishing services that would otherwise be available elsewhere, such as editing, copyediting, proofreading, cover design, marketing, PR, and advertising]…

Some kinds of tying, especially by contract, have historically been regarded as anti-competitive practices. The basic idea is that consumers are harmed by being forced to buy an undesired good (the tied good) in order to purchase a good they actually want (the tying good), and so would prefer that the goods be sold separately. The company doing this bundling may have a significantly large market share so that it may impose the tie on consumers, despite the forces of market competition. The tie may also harm other companies in the market for the tied good, or who sell only single components.

One effect of tying can be that low quality products achieve a higher market share than would otherwise be the case [which might explain why legacy publishers notoriously suck at, for example, cover design]...

Tying may also be used with or in place of patents or copyrights to help protect entry into a market, discouraging innovation [which might explain why legacy publishers are well known for innovating…nothing].

Tying is often used when the supplier makes one product that is critical to many customers [again, think paper distribution]. By threatening to withhold that key product unless others are also purchased, the supplier can increase sales of less necessary products.

In the United States, most states have laws against tying, which are enforced by state governments. In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice enforces federal laws against tying through its Antitrust Division [good news, Authors Guilda lever by which you can pressure legacy publishers into sharing a bit more of the wealth!].

Accusing legacy publishers of tying is a significantly more coherent argument than accusing Amazon of being a monopoly. And the “Amazon is a monopoly” gambit is just a ploy anyway. As Lee Child of Authors United has acknowledged:

I don’t expect anything substantive [to come from Authors United’s letter to the Justice Department accusing Amazon of running an illegal monopoly], but books are generally seen as vaguely important, so the initial think-of-the-children rhetoric might get attention, and then maybe there might be a back-channel whisper…

If these organizations can use a ploy as weak as “Amazon is a monopoly” to try to pressure Amazon into the behavior they want, what’s keeping them from using an actual legal argument to the same end with regard to legacy publishers? Only psychological thralldom, I would argue. And certainly an appeal to the DOJ about legacy tying would be more effective than the “pretty please” blog posts and interviews which, when it comes to the legacy industry, the AG pretends are its only weapons.

One other bit of fascinating bullshit from this Publishers Weekly/Authors Guild joint press release:

Noting that both “copyright law and policy” need to be “tailored to put authors’ concerns at the forefront,” Rasenberger said the Guild hopes the survey will allow it to “more effectively advocate for working authors.”

What does copyright have to do with the author impoverishment the AG alleges? Copyright term has long since metastasized to mean functionally forever, which might be good for authors (if less so for society)—except that publishers routine require authors to assign by contract their rights for the entire length of those “forever” terms. Rasenberger’s copyright! argument is therefore at best a non sequitur. Worse, it’s a dodge, intended to obscure the Authors Guild’s obligation (at least judging from the organization’s mission statement) to actually do something beyond the odd blog post about those legacy publisher “forever” terms. What is she proposing, that someone lobby Congress to amend copyright law and policy (whatever she means by drawing that distinction) to make copyright even more favorable for authors? Even if such a chimerical approach (akin to a politician claiming to support some constitutional amendment, knowing it’ll never happen) might accomplish anything, it would have zero impact on the real problem—which is, again, that whatever rights authors have in their works, legacy publishers gobble up everything anyway via lockstep draconian contractual requirements.

It’s fascinating. The Authors Guild knows what’s the real problem—it’s just that the organization is unwilling to actually do anything about it. When pressed, its spokespeople resort to what’s familiar and comfortable—piracy is bad, Amazon is bad, copyright isn’t working—no matter how irrelevant or untrue these beliefs are repeatedly proven to be. It reminds me of recent establishment media coverage of Jeremy Corbyn’s huge Labour win in Britain—perseverating that Corbyn is “radical” and “divisive” even as he wins unprecedented majorities and brings to Labour tens of thousands of new members. How do they know someone who just won Labour’s leadership by a landslide and is swelling the party’s rank-and-file membership in the process is radical and divisive? They just do! Who are you going to believethat comforting feeling, or that annoying combination of facts and logic?

I’ve argued before that an Authors Guild worthy of the name would display a little less dedication to the interests of legacy publishers and a little more to, you know, authors. But maybe there’s a separate problem. Maybe the organization really does want to help authors. Maybe it even knows how it could do so and is just too fearful. In other words, maybe what the AG lacks isn’t brains; it’s balls. Whether it’ll ever grow a pair remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t bother with these posts if I didn’t live in hope.

Update: Nate Hoffelder at the Digital Reader has a great analysis of what the AG numbers really mean. Among other things: “Far from showing the demise of the American author, this survey actually shows that the youngest authors are better off than they were before

The Authors Guild. Even worse than you thought.


JA Konrath said...

The AG is wrasslin' with an unhealtful combination of Pournelle's Iron Law and Status Quo Bias. The AG exists to exist, in support of the Old Ways that help 1% of their membership.

I agree with much of what you said here, Barry, but want to tease out two points where I'm not seeing completely eye to eye with you.

The little I know about "tying" is in regard to goods and services that can be purchased. If you want the new XBox Jumbo on the day it comes out, Microsoft also forces you to buy a $500 Zune. Or in order to get that full house carpet cleaning service for $35, you must also pay $300 for duct cleaning.

I'm just not sure access to paper distribution counts as a consumer good. There are some ideological similarities, but I don't know if illegal tying antitrust law covers them. A handful of collusive companies that have a lock on paper distribution can certainly use their market power to force unconscionable contract terms on authors, I'd assume we are considered employees rather than customers.

That said, something does undoubtedly stink about an oligopoly who forces authors to not only accept one-sided contracts, but a handful of overpriced and often ineffective "services" in order to reach a readership, because reaching those readers without bending over for bad cover art and sloppy editing is otherwise impossible.

It sucks. It seems similar to tying. But I don't know if tying covers it.


Barry Eisler said...

Hey Joe, thanks for the thoughts. My knowledge about tying outside a patent context is all Internet-based, and I freely acknowledge the argument might be legally weak (though logically appealing). But as I note in the article, the argument doesn't have to have a lot of legal weight to be used as a pressure point, and if Authors Guilded and United can use "Amazon is a monopoly" letters to the DOJ to pressure Amazon (as Lee Child acknowledges), there's no legitimate reason they can't use "legacy publishers are illegally tying" letters to the DOJ to pressure the Big Five cartel.

JA Konrath said...


As for the AG's continued fight to enforce copyright, my impression is that they aren't currently pestering Congress for stronger copyright laws, but rather for stronger ways to enforce copyright, like by bringing back a bastardized version of SOPA. The AG isn't demanding for stronger copyright laws, it's demanding that Congress enforce current copyright laws by destroying net neutrality.

It is a dodge, and it is foolhardy. In fact, it flies in the face of the AG's own vow to protect the First Amendment. You can't have freedom of speech if you force ISP's or search engines to censor websites. Duh.

As for using tying as a pressure point--yeah, I see it now that you repeated it. Makes sense. Use their tactics against them. Fight with propaganda that throws more heat than light on a situation. And you're right--it is about as valid as the "Amazon is a monopoly" argument.

But my goal isn't to win at all costs. It's to enlighten. I don't consider this a war, but rather a revolution that authors need to learn about. Using the same guerrilla tactics as Authors United or the AG doesn't interest me as much as being right. :)

Nathaniel Hoffelder said...

" If Rasenberger has some evidence that piracy is harming authors"

Actually, The Authors Guild has released data about piracy. It's not a problem. Also, their data was bogus, LOL.

David said...

Interesting comments on publishers and the practice of 'tying'; what, exactly, is the value-add of a publisher without the tied services? Act as a printer/distributor only? Does enumeration of services constitue a pricable menu of options that can be selected or substituted from a different vendor?

Barry Eisler said...

Joe, good points about what the AG really wants with regard to copyright. Though whatever they want in that area, it's hard to see what it has to do with their proposed (and correct) solution to the author impoverishment they claim: legacy publishers need to share more of the wealth.

And yes, if it turns out the tying argument is anywhere near as weak as the Amazon is a monopoly one, I'd personally be ashamed to use it as an indirect pressure point. My main point is just that if the AG and Authors United are willing to use a ploy like letters to the DOJ in one context, why not the other?

A rhetorical question, I know...:)

Nate, great post and I love that Gaiman video.

David, interesting questions. I don't know how legacy publishers would price their services a la carte, but it's telling that their whole business model is built on a refusal to do so.

Graham Powell said...

Reading the last few posts it occurs to me that legacy publishers function mostly like curators, especially curators in the trendy sense of the word: "A new collection of fragrances, curated by Matthew McConaghey".

In other words the publishers add value mainly by conferring their own seal of approval. In practice they also take a financial risk in printing paper copies, hiring salesmen, etc., but what if all they did was say, "This book is good, go buy it"?

JA Konrath said...

if the AG and Authors United are willing to use a ploy like letters to the DOJ in one context, why not the other?

We are in complete agreeance here.

Of course we all know why the AG is discussing piracy, copyright, and Amazon in the same breath as legacy publishers paying more. It's a cross between sugar coating criticism and spreading the blame.

The AG won't outright attack the Big 5, or force the issue. It's like lawyers who bury the one relevant clause in the 1000 worthless clauses, hoping it won't be noticed. Because if it is noticed, someone might get mad.

But unlike shyster lawyers playing games, the AG isn't trying to trick the Big 5 into agreeing. The AG is trying to appease its dues-paying members by taking this firm, unwavering stand, backed with media and threats.

Oh, wait, they aren't doing that. But they are making low-key noise. We should all be happy about that progress.

Anonymous said...

I saw this article a few days ago and immediately thought it was BS. What irked me was the definitive headline - as though a survey done within one group somehow made the results true. The sample was limited, small and yeah, obviously vested interests at work. But what bothers me is that other writers seem to think there is some reason to believe this kind of crap. Sigh.

Good post, thanks.

William Ockham said...

Citing a swirl of factors, from online piracy to publisher consolidation to the rise of Amazon (and the shuttering of brick and mortar bookstores), Rasenberger said the takeaway from the survey is that authors should be receiving higher royalties from publishers. “Authors need to be cut in more equitably on the profits their publishers see, or we’ll stop seeing the quality of work the industry was built on.”

This all makes sense, if you have the secret decoder ring. I have managed to obtain one:

Citing a swirl of factors, from online piracy to publisher consolidation to the rise of Amazon (and the shuttering of brick and mortar bookstores), Rasenberger said the takeaway from the survey is that a handful of bestselling authors should be receiving higher advances from publishers. “Bestselling authors need to be cut in more equitably on the profits their publishers see, or we’ll set up our own publisher and cut you out of the loop entirely.”

Online piracy, publisher consolidation, and consumer spending moving to Amazon from brick and mortar bookstores aren't impoverishing any authors, but all of those factors are putting a crimp in the lifestyle of the rich and famous authors.

Big name authors lose out when book buying moves on line because the greater selection and relative unimportance of product placement leads to more varied purchases.

Publisher consolidation is leading to fewer bidders at the auction for the big names' titles, which means relatively lower bids for advances.

Online piracy is more of a theoretical concern for the big names, but they are the ones who can afford to lose 10 readers to gain 1 buyer (figures totally hypothetical).

Yes, the AG is pleading the poverty of the many to further enrich the wealthy few.

Barry Eisler said...

And a few other things I should have realized earlier -- I plead that with AG levels of bullshit, you can't catch it all on the first go-round...

1. The change in publisher revenue reported by the AAP, as well as the change in revenue of nearly all of the Big Five, from 2009 to 2015 is known. *If* author revenue is down, this seems like a pretty easy comparison to draw. Where is it?

2. Setting aside many other issues, the basic metric being used is quite flawed. "Percentage of authors making above poverty line" has a numerator and a denominator. What if you were asked to compare the percentage of people who made more than the poverty line from taking high-definition video in 2015 vs 2009? Probably the number of HD video cameras on phones used by amateurs who make no money, or just a little money, has changed. Is the number of people working professionally taking HD video today higher or lower? Would this percentage tell us anything? Unlocking the means to write and reach an audience globally with no intermediary would almost certainly result in a lower percentage or median and this is a good thing.

3. Why six years between surveys? What are they doing over there?