A new organization for authors, called the Authors Alliance, is launching today (May 21) with a reception in San Francisco at the headquarters of the Internet Archive. I cannot attend, but a couple of weeks ago I responded to an invitation and became a founding member of the Alliance; I also made a small financial contribution to help the group get off the ground. This seemed like an obvious move to me. Why shouldn’t academic authors, as well as the multitude of others who write for reasons not directly linked to commercial sales, have an organization that represents their interests? Surely the idea of (mostly) academic authors organizing to further their own interests is not controversial.
But after I joined the Authors Alliance, a colleague sent me a link to an amazing, apparently distraught blog post on the website of the Authors Guild that seems to be warning AG members about the dangers posed by the Authors Alliance. Although the author of the post, a successful author of biographies named T.J. Stiles, affects a tone of calm, his misinformation and efforts to sound contemptuous make it very clear that the Alliance is perceived as a threat by the AG. Which, of course, is an additional argument for signing up.
Throughout his post, Stiles talks about the Alliance as an organization for people who want to “give away” their work. He sarcastically suggests that,
If you think, in our digital age, that the biggest problem facing authors is how hard it is to give your work away for free, it’s for you. If you think you’ve got too much power over people who copy and distribute your work without your permission, by all means sign up.
This, of course, is a profound misunderstanding of the situation of academic authors. Under the current system, academic authors are almost always required to give away their work for free to publishers, who then sell it at a profit. Stiles, who worked for years for Oxford University Press, ought to know this. The “power over people who copy and distribute your work” is all held by these publishers, who become the copyright holders once academic authors sign transfer agreements as a condition of publication. One reason for joining the Authors Alliance is precisely so that academic authors can retain more control and give away less.
In his desperation to say bad things about this new organization, which has yet to take any positions or actions as a group, Stiles is even willing to contradict himself. He refers to the Alliance as “an astroturf organization. It was not organized by authors, nor is it governed by them. The four directors are Berkeley academics.” But in other places he acknowledges the obvious fact that academics are authors; they are just supported by a different financial model than that to which the Authors Guild myopically clings. Make no mistake; the Authors Alliance is organized and governed by authors in order to represent the interests of authors.
Stiles goes on to assert some of the putative stances the Alliance might take, although he acknowledges that it is too early to know for sure. Instead, he just extrapolates based on gross exaggerations of some of the academic arguments made by Alliance board members, especially Professor Pam Samuelson. For example, based on arguments for a digital first sale right, he makes the absurd claim that the Alliance would want a world where “anyone could become a publisher of your book,” based on the idea that resale would always involve copying. Stiles carefully ignores the fact that all such discussions, to my knowledge at least, advocate for a “forward and delete” regime that would replicate the physical first sale right that has been part of U.S. copyright law for over a century. Likewise Stiles claims that members of the Alliance board have advocated for “allowing potentially unlimited copying for educational uses.” If so, I have never heard them. What I have heard, and advocate for, is a fair use right — again part of our law for more than 170 years — that works for education in those cases where it does not threaten the commercial sales of the works. That, in fact, is exactly what Judge Chin evoked when he ruled against the AG in their lawsuits against the Google Books project.
Stiles’ essay is an exercise in fear-mongering and, when he begins to cite the salaries paid to some of its academic founders, a rather petulant envy. Since he has spent a lot of space offering fictionalized reasons that one might join the Authors Alliance, let me close by citing two that were specifically important to me when I decided to join.
First, it has the potential to be far more representative of authors as a whole than the Authors Guild is. It is the AG that is really a niche organization, representing, according to public documents, about 8,000 members. There are, of course, vastly more authors than that in the U.S; indeed, there is a larger number of potential academic authors than that total just within a 30-mile radius of where I sit as I write this, because of the four large universities in the Research Triangle. The Authors Guild sees itself as representing a single type of author — those who wish to sell their books through commercial outlets and who have had success doing so. This is a very small percentage of authors. The remaining group are not bad authors, or all amateurs, as Stiles implies; they are just authors who making their living based on different business models.
Which brings me to my second reason for joining the Authors Alliance; it can represent a much more diverse perspective on the business and technology of authorship. The truth is that the Authors Guild is apparently irredeemably wedded to a single business model, which is itself tied to the technology of print. That business model depends, even in its digital forms, on making the book (or article) a scarce object and then limiting its readership to those who pay to obtain a (costly) copy. This model only developed with the printing press, and as other options “come online” its relevance is fading. Limiting readership, while necessary to the print-based approach to authorship, is not something that actually appeals to many authors. Most people, I would think, write so that lots of people will read their work. If other ways can be found to reimburse their effort while still supporting a wide readership, that is all to the good.
Of course, for most of our history writers have been supported in other ways. Shakespeare and Dante were supported by patrons. Many authors today are supported by a similar kind of patronage, from foundations, agencies or, indeed, universities. Stiles himself, as the winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, which carries a cash award with it, is not unfamiliar with a certain kind of patronage support. So when he says that one should not join the Authors Alliance if “you earn a living as a writer, or hope to” he is being incredibly myopic. And when he goes on to cite the salaries of some of the academic authors who are founding the Alliance he exposes his hypocrisy and envy. These academic founders of the Alliance DO make their livings as writers, and their substantial salaries are testimony to their skill at it. Authorship is a requirement of the jobs that pay them those salaries, and they are repeatedly evaluated on the basis of their writings, as well as other factors, in order to be sure they are providing value for money.
The point is that there are many ways in which writers are supported in their endeavors, and even more various are the reasons that people become writers. The Authors Guild is focused on a single reason and a single business model, and it is sinking into irrelevance because of that limited vision. Stiles’ essay reflects the desperation of the AG as much as its quixotic campaign of lawsuits does. So why join the Authors Alliance? Because academic authors need a representative body that can look beyond a single model to embrace new technologies and business models that are both new and, sometimes, old. Because we need a representative group that has the vision and flexibility to be relevant and influential well into the 21st century.