I’m accustomed to reading grim things about the future of books. That’s what a lot of this blog is about: how writers can just keep it all going in this day and age.
Now, I’m a hardened veteran of indulgent speculation concernign the demise of eBooks and literary novels and making a living by making art.
But this piece, “The Death of the American Author,” from Scott Turow, the president of The Authors Guild, was a bit much for me.
Turrow writes about how the sudden destruction of copyrighted art is going to make it impossible to make a living as an official American Author.
But that makes me wonder: what does being an American Author mean now?
Does Being Published Mean You’re an American Author?
In late February, I self-published a book. It got downloaded about 100 times (mostly for free) and I’ve made $12 from it.
Likewise, I’ve been blogging since 2009.
I live in America. I’ve written things. People have read them.
Does this make me an American Author?
Making a Living, With Words
My suspicion is that Turow would say I’m not an American Author. So who is?
He talks about Russia, where there are no good contemporary authors there anymore, because you can’t make a living writing:
Last October, I visited Moscow and met with a group of authors who described the sad fate of writing as a livelihood in Russia. There is only a handful of publishers left, while e-publishing is savaged by instantaneous piracy that goes almost completely unpoliced. As a result, in the country of Tolstoy and Chekhov, few Russians, let alone Westerners, can name a contemporary Russian author whose work regularly affects the national conversation.
Frankly, I make a living writing. I get to write about technology all day long. Technology is interesting. Trends are interesting.
I’m making a living by writing.
You Can’t Be Influenced by People When You’re Writing
The heart issue here is that authors can no longer be independent artists. Freelance authors and magazine writers are few and far between. Journalists are scarce, too, as I’ve mentioned when talking about the death of journalism.
But, actually, wait… we can all be independent authors now. Without having to carefully craft a book for agents, editors, and publishers, we can self-publish our work. Good, bad, it’s at least independent.
If we’re corporate, we can even use pseudonyms. There are lots of nice tools to promote our stuff, too.
American Authors Can’t Be Rich and Famous
The main thrust of Turow’s argument is that copyright laws are being eroded.
Meanwhile, Amazon called every writer’s bluff about not writing for money by giving promotional power to anyone who used the KDP Select program to promote their book for free.
But why do we write? Is it for money or is it so our ideas spread?
If it’s for the latter, then I’d say we should champion both free eBooks and the wholesale slaughter of copyright protection. They help our ideas spread, right?
The Starving Artist
I know all of this sounds wrong.
I certainly wish I could publish what I want to write and make a good living doing so, but, while you used to be able to be a “writer” as a job, the living was mediocre at best. The idea of a “starving artist” has been around for centuries, and for good reason.
What’s happening now is that:
1. The internet has introduced so much competiton that most authors can’t find a way to stick out.
2. Consumers believe all purchases should be optional at best.
3. The middle class of writers can no longer make a living, so you better be writing a blockbuster.
4. More creative people have to find other jobs, producing a creative ripple effect in the economy.
The American Author isn’t Dead, but the American Reader May Be
It’s fair to say that authors are alive, well, and able to publish like never before, with no concern for who thinks what.
It’s the American Reader who might need some resurrection.
That’s precisely why publishers don’t have the power to combat piracy and authors can’t make a living. There aren’t hordes of passionate readers anymore. They’ve gone to HBO and video games.
When Turow warns that there’s no Russian book that’s affected the “national conversation,” I’m not too sure that American literature has done that in a long time, either.