Scott Turow is afraid, you guys! He’s afraid!


Many authors are taking a kick at Scott Turow’s NYTimes opinion piece called The Slow Death of the American Author. Yeah, it’s easy to roll your eyes at a guy who badmouths libraries and/or fantasizes about the ways libraries might damage authors and publishing. Turow seems to think that borrowing ebooks “to anybody with a reading device, a library card and an Internet connection” is somehow harmful. If only we forced people to physically go to their local branch!

Not all that long ago, I heard a rep for a publisher–Penguin, maybe?–complaining about library electronic lending by imagining a future with a single national library that would pay for a single copy of an ebook and begin lending it to the entire nation simultaneously.

Obviously, that’s a silly dystopian “If This Goes On!” style situation that would better suit the old ASFM issues I used to subscribe to, not anything like the situation we have now. I’ve always thought that people who argue against some terrible future outcome always did so because they didn’t have a sensible argument against what was happening right now.

However, that’s a digression I didn’t want to take. The problem with Turow’s argument here is that he’s lamenting the breaking of a system that can never be repaired and reinstated, even if we wanted to. The old paradigm that a reader had to go to a store or library to find a book available only through a publisher was a closed system. It was “safe” in the sense that, when a writer was getting screwed, they knew pretty much where the screwing was coming from and knew what kind of screwing to expect. Delayed royalty payments. Selling stripped books. Publishing in a market without the rights. They were bad things, but they were the sorts of bad things you could expect.

Now it’s different: selling used ebooks, piracy in easily-accessed international sites, and more are new (potential) dangers to authors’ careers and income, and the courts are too ponderously slow to keep up with internet era advances in information sharing. However misguided Turow is about libraries, he’s not wrong to worry about major corporations like Google and Amazon squeezing dollars out of writers’ work without compensation.

Yes, Google only shows parts of an “orphaned” work when you search for it, but they’re still selling ad space on works in copyright without sharing revenue. As for Amazon, everyone including their big boosters is waiting for them to start leaning on authors they way they are on other vendors they do business with, as I’ve written about on my blog many times.

The usual response to these sorts of concerns is to say that obscurity is a bigger danger than piracy, and that’s true, but the answer to that is not to close our eyes and think of England while Google earns revenue from our work while paying us in “exposure.”

Unfortunately, Turow is the wrong spokesman for these concerns: he’s afraid of everything new. He found too much success in the narrow waterslide track of Old Publishing and he sees every new development as a crack that might make the whole thing collapse into the pool below. Yeah, it’s a new world with new opportunity, but we need someone willing to fight back when creators’ rights are threatened.