08 April 2013

What would Scott Turow do?

Scott Turow has an op-ed in the New York Times today dramatically titled "The Slow Death of the American Author," pegged to a recent Supreme Court case allowing foreign editions to be resold here without violating copyright. (When I first heard about this case, I thought: That was illegal? I know of a bookstore... but oh well, never mind that.) Turow correctly ascertains that that will cut into authors' profits, but expands that to describe a larger trend of external forces sapping creators' profits.

I guess the benefit of a megaseller like Turow offering this analysis is that no one can accuse him of sour grapes. However it shakes out, he'll still make a living, as he acknowledges in a discussion about e-books: "Best-selling authors have the market power to negotiate a higher implicit e-book royalty in our advances, even if our publishers won’t admit it. But writers whose works sell less robustly find their earnings declining because of the new rate, a process that will accelerate as the market pivots more toward digital." (For a much angrier take on this, see Mark Helprin's DIGITAL BARBARISM, whose "no digital anything" argument led me to keep it on my desk at work as an inside joke.) However, lumping in book publishing economics with online piracy and Google Book Search makes for an imprecise picture, and certainly members of the former who are affected by the latter would resent the suggestion that they are in cahoots. Nor are those groups acting in concert with Amazon (whose concerns are of a different set) and libraries (who have conflicts with Amazon, and e-book marketers, and publishers... you get the picture).

But the biggest mistake Turow makes is walking us all up to the ledge, pointing at the spiky rocks below and not describing what he would use as a guardrail. Turow cites the example of Russia, where piracy runs rampant and thus "few Russians, let alone Westerners, can name a contemporary Russian author whose work regularly affects the national conversation." But correlation isn't causation -- surely piracy hurts all intellectual property creators in Russia but there could be a lot of reasons for Russian authors not being known worldwide. (Lack of translation, for example.) The suggestion of thuggery and ignominy isn't a great place to land, except for its questionable scare value. Tell me Mr. Turow, what would you suggest?

No comments: