Earlier this month, writer Scott Turow spoke about freelancing opportunities and the writing profession when he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times called “The Slow Death of the American Author.” You can read the whole thing at their site, but here’s a quick summary.
1. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court decided people could import and resell foreign editions of American books.
2. This is the newest symptom in a cultural disease that is killing income streams for writers.
3. Google is killing writers by directing people to pirate sites, and by taking advantage of the fair use loophole with their Google Books function.
4. Book pirates are taking food out of the mouths of authors and their children.
5. The halcyon days of being an author for a living are gone forever.
With respect for Mr. Turow’s work and his contribution to the profession, I have to disagree in the strongest possible terms. Things are changing in the world of writing, but our best days are still ahead of us. The trick is understanding that the “author” model is changing to something that looks more like other freelancing jobs. Let’s look at his points one by one.
- Yup. This is true. The Supreme Court made this decision after a college student from India realized the Indian edition of his textbooks sold for a fraction of the American price, even though they were in English. The Court decided that if it was fair for publishers to engage in arbitrage by gouging Americans, it was equally fair for consumers to engage in arbitrage by finding the best deal possible.
- Not really. Some copyright factors are cutting into traditional income streams. The days of being Scott Turow, or Stephen King, writing one book a year and making a few hundred grand annually…that stream is dying and some Internet chicanery contributes to that death. But the web as a whole, with the new opportunities for self-publishing, easier promotion in the hands of writers, and broader access to clients for all freelancing jobs — that’s making this the best decade to be a writer ever.
- Nah. Remember back in the 1990s when Garth Brooks made a stink because record stores selling used CDs were killing his sales? He still made money the way musicians make money — with concert tickets. Google promotes books with their services, and any freelancer worth his salt can gain far more from Big G than it costs.
- Again, no. Yes, some pirates distribute books for free and the author gets no cut. However, the amount of money that actually represents is a rounding error in comparison to how much freelancing writers earn if they do their jobs. The amount is smaller than the margin for error in the calculation.
- Also again, no. Like I suggested in #2, and all over this blog, this is the best time ever to be a writer. Yes, we have to learn new skills — but none of those skills are harder than learning how to write. No, we can’t just turn out manuscripts and trust a publisher to do the rest. But we can learn those skills and create exactly the freelance living we want, doing jobs that are fun and challenging and interesting.
Mr. Turow speaks from the point of view of anybody for whom a system worked well when that system is beginning to change. He can choose to panic and make his fears come true…for him. Or he can do what the rest of us freelance writers do: adapt, learn new skills, work a little harder and come out better than he came in.
If you’re not sure how, Scott, reach out. I’ll be thrilled to show you.