Writers are contributing to the fall in their incomes by penning free pieces for large companies in the hope that it will raise their profile and lead to book sales, Roxana Robinson, president of The Authors Guild, has told The Bookseller. She also said that Amazon was devaluing books and writing.
Robinson right, a novelist and short story writer who has also written a biography of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, has been president of The Authors Guild—the US equivalent of the Society of Authors—since March 2014. She said that “it is clear that writers’ incomes are declining”, claiming a drop in the number of people reading books and “struggles over royalty and prices” were among the reasons for lower incomes.
“Amazon discounting book prices means that there is a movement toward devaluing books,” she said. “And I think that has an impact on the way people look at writing. If Amazon keeps pricing e-books at very, very low prices, people start feeling, ‘well, actually, writing isn’t a valuable product’.”
But, she added, authors were not helping themselves by writing for free. “People write on Huffington Post, they write for Goodreads, they write for Medium.com: valuable sites owned by big tech companies that make a lot of money for those companies. Writers choose to write there for nothing and to provide content for nothing. That’s another issue, and that is something that writers are doing deliberately.”
Robinson said The Authors Guild would not advise any author to stop writing for publications, but argued that an article by an author on a website may not lead to book sales. “I don’t know that anyone has figures on sales that result from this kind of writing (for free),” she said. “Everyone says, ‘get your name out there’, but does that really translate to connecting to the hard mental presence of the book? We want writers to recognise what is happening, to be aware of this trend, that writers themselves are contributing to the idea that their writing doesn’t deserve to be paid for.”
Robinson said there was “definitely a difference between how authors and other people are viewed”, adding: “The idea that software writers be well compensated and that their work should be protected but book writers’ should not . . . that’s a real problem.” The Authors Guild seeks to “protect and support” all authors, Robinson said, including independently and traditionally published writers.
Reflecting on the 2014 dispute over terms between Hachette Book Group (HBG) in the US and Amazon, which led to books by HBG authors not being discounted or available for pre-order, Robinson said it was “interesting, if a little disappointing” to see a split between authors.
“Independent publishing is an increasingly important option for authors,” she said. “The Authors Guild embraces and supports any published writer who wants to join us, including, of course, independently published authors. We do not like to see a split in the author community between self-published and traditionally published authors, but the Amazon/Hachette dispute did show a divide—at least from a group of independently published authors who distribute through Amazon—and that’s kind of problematic.”
She said the effect of the dispute was “devastating” for HBG authors who had books coming out during the disagreement—which lasted from May to November 2014—and claimed the dispute was an “unfair contest because Amazon was punishing people who could do nothing to respond”.
But Robinson conceded that for some authors the Amazon experience can be positive, although she warned writers that she thought the online retailer was not “in the business of supporting independently published writers”.
“Amazon can be a good platform for some authors, especially independently published genre writers,” said Robinson. “Romance or sci-fi or mystery, that kind of book often does very well if you’re self-published through Amazon.”
Amazon is not the only big company that is of concern for The Authors Guild. For 10 years the organisation has been locked in a battle with Google, which it sued after the online company scanned books—including copyrighted materials—from a number of libraries and made them available through Google Books. A final decision on the case is due to be made soon.
“Non-fiction writers have seen their sales plummet because of this,” said Robinson. “It is a brilliant tool for scholars doing research, but it makes it unnecessary to buy a book or to find it in a library. Google is making money on this process and it is not paying authors any compensation at all. If, on the other hand, Google set up a software system in which every time you clicked on my book I would get a penny, that would solve the problem.”
Reflecting on the overall picture, Robinson said that “in some ways it’s great to be a writer now [in the US] because your audience is so much larger because of the internet, so you can reach people that you would never have reached before as people are not separated geographically the way they used to be”. She continued: “There was a kind of regionalism that made people’s horizons rather small. Now you can be Facebook friends with anyone in the country, and it’s really interesting to hear what people say. You do become aware of voices everywhere: in that sense, it’s great.”