'Market Power' And The American Author

Apr 13, 2013
Originally published on April 13, 2013 5:09 pm
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This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Many authors struggle to make a living in America, thanks to smaller advances, shrinking royalties and the merger of publishing houses and the impact of e-books. The challenges have been embraced by some, but they make others wary. Writer Scott Turow, who's also president of the Authors Guild, is in the latter camp.

His nine national best-sellers like "Presumed Innocent" have accompanied a successful law career. But in a recent op-ed in Sunday's New York Times, he argued that new developments in the publishing industry are causing, quote, "the slow death of the American author." He joins me now. Welcome to the program, Scott Turow.

SCOTT TUROW: Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: You were talking about a Supreme Court decision last month that allows the importation and resale of foreign editions of American works. But haven't there always been used books?

TUROW: Right. Well, the evolution of the used book market is a complicated subject. Nothing in the recent Supreme Court decision will do anything to rival the national used book market that Amazon created. What was new about what Amazon did is that traditionally, publishers wouldn't sell new books to used bookstores. They did it because the used book competes with the new book.

Amazon had such market power that the publishers couldn't refuse to do that, and the result was a world in which Amazon says I'll sell you a new book for $15, buy it back from you tomorrow for $10 and sell it to somebody else for $12. On that second sale, neither the publisher nor the author makes any royalty.

So it's the - it's what seems to be market efficiency and is, but it's also a sign of market power by the country's leading bookseller who's able to break down restrictions that always existed and put the internet to a use that nobody ever anticipated.

LYDEN: Why do you say this is more likely to affect authors whose sales are more limited than those of a national best-seller author like yourself?

TUROW: I say that because that's been the market reality. Let's take e-book royalties. The publishers are trying to pay a 25 percent of the net e-book royalty. That's roughly half of the share that authors have traditionally made on physical books. When you're a best-selling author, you can negotiate in advance which reflects a higher e-book royalty rate.

But if you're lower down on the food chain, if you're the midlist or the new author, you're stuck with that 25 percent of the net e-book royalty. And as the market moves more and more toward e-books, that means that the incomes of midlist and new authors are actually dwindling.

LYDEN: But let me give you another argument. There's been a lot of push back in the blogosphere about your op-ed piece that says basically, Scott Turow, you're being reactionary, maybe even a bit of a Luddite because at the same time, a lot of people who might not have gotten publishing contracts, especially from the major publishers, have been able to self-publish and make money and content that way.

TUROW: Right. And there's not a word in what I published in The New York Times that criticizes this development. I think it's a great thing that authors have been able to surmount the traditional barriers to publication, some of them quite successfully. And although I'm a frequent critic of Amazon, I salute them for making it so much easier for people to get published and to sell their books.

LYDEN: You are very active in the literary community, president of the Authors Guild. What do you hear from younger authors who are getting started? Are they concerned about making a living as authors, as writers?

TUROW: Well, there was a young author David Bernstein who was at the annual meeting of the Authors Guild, and he's just published a terrific book about people his age and their impact on the economy. And David said, you know, the authors I know don't even think of writing books as a principal way to make a living. It's one avenue to get their name out there, so they get hired as consultants and give talks. And that's fine for people in the nonfiction world, I guess, but what do you do with a novelist? I mean, I've had a wonderful career, but I don't fill stadiums to give a reading of my work.

LYDEN: Scott Turow is the author of nine best-selling books and most recently an op-ed in The New York Times called "The Slow Death of the American Author." Scott, thank you very much for being with us.

TUROW: Thanks, Jacki. It's great to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.