Civil Liberties

Authors Guild Hates Change, Attacks the Writers It Says It Wants to Protect


Former Reason editor Virginia Postrel has a great piece at Bloomberg View about how the Authors Guild (est. 1912) is attacking an upstart group, the Authors Alliance, and teh Internet BECAUSE COPYRIGHT!

It's only a little more complicated than that. The Authors Guild sued Google for daring to digitize books, thus allowing potential readers to discover them online (the Guild lost its case).

On the Guild's official blog, a member attacked the Author's Alliance as "an astroturf organization" tailored to "academics and hobbyists" rather than real writers. The alliance bills itself as support for "authors who write to be read." 

Postrel neatly dissects what's wrong with the Authors Guild's attempt to hold back the march of time, technology, and a rival advocacy group.

The Internet has unquestionably made it more difficult to make a living as a writer. But the problem isn't copyright infringement. It's competition. We've gone from a world in which reading material was relatively scarce and expensive to one in which it's overabundant and nearly free. And it's much, much harder to get readers to hear about your book. Reviews and excerpts get lost in the vast sea of online content. Online retailers haven't found good substitutes for bookstore browsing. Scanning books to make them searchable doesn't hurt sales. It gives those works a prayer of being found.

It also saves books from "digital oblivion." For increasing numbers of readers, a book that doesn't show up in a Google search or can't be linked to in some way online might as well not exist. The scanning the Authors Guild wants to block rescues old titles from the memory hole. Going forward, it means that today's new titles will have a chance of enduring, at least as searchable files, for as long as the websites are preserved by the Internet Archive. Do you want your latest book to be as easy to discover in 10 years as one of today's cat videos or Buzzfeed listicles? Or do you want it to go down the memory hole unless you post it online for free?

Postrel notes that there is a "perverse logic" to the Guild's stance. Its members who are writing new books benefit if older ones are not as easy to find (even as that makes it harder to write well-researched new books). But this is bad thinking, especially from folks who typically talk about how important it is to be grounded in history and tradition. Fact is, the publishing establishment and certainly those who are well compensated under the status quo publishing world hate change and the general leveling that's been made possible via the Internet. If you're, say, Erica Jong (a critic of the Authors Alliance and anything that threatens a system that has rewarded her handsomely), it's easy to understand why you fear change. But for the rest of us trying to make a living putting pixel to page? Not so much.

Whole Postrel piece here.