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The Authors Guild Thinks That Amazon is Devaluing Books, Authors Who Write for Free Err

Robinson2_JoyceRavid[1]Earlier today The Bookseller published a piece where Roxana Robinson, the president of The Author’s Guild, shares hew view on key issues like the ongoing appeal of the Google Books case, authors writing for free,  and Amazon destroying book culture as we know it.

Starting from least interesting to the most exciting, Robinson mis-characterized the ongoing Google Books case as:

“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.”

Yes, because showing a tiny snippet of a book is enough to completely obviate any need to buy the book and will never lead to sales.

In related news, no one has ever bought a book after browsing a copy in a bookstore.

Do you know what also doesn’t lead to sales? Authors marketing themselves by writing guest blog posts. According to Robinson:

authors were not helping themselves by writing for free. “People write on Huffington Post, they write for Goodreads, they write for 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.”

Yes, writing blog posts for free devalues writing.

At the same time, writing a whole book for free and submitting it to a publisher in the hopes of getting a tiny advance doesn’t in any way devalue writing, no sirree.

Frankly, I’m not surprised that she neglected to mention that second part, nor am I surprised that Robinson also took a couple swings at Amazon.

As with her last criticism of Amazon, Robinson has taken the publishers' position that Amazon leads the movement of devaluing books:

"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’.”

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.”

Leaving aside the Amazon comments for the moment, her comparison between authors and software engineers is simply nonsensical.

It’s not just that she ignores the prevalence of free apps in iTunes, Google Play, and elsewhere, or that the free apps are often equivalent replacements for paid apps (this is less true with books).

What’s more important is her idea that software engineers should be paid but authors should not. I for one have never read anyone taking that position, so I am stumped to figure out where she heard it or why she is taking it seriously.

I suspect it is a straw man argument, but I don’t understand why she would want to invent it when she could have simply kept attacking Amazon.

Speaking of which, does anyone else wonder whether Amazon has pissed off the publishing industry again?

While that might seem a leap worthy of a conspiracy theorist, I would remind you that there is no obvious reason for Robinson to take a swing at Amazon like this.

Yes, The Authors Guild frequently echoes the major publishers' hatred of Amazon, but the attack usually come timed to support some conflict between the publishers and Amazon.

As you might recall the last time that Robinson  attacked Amazon she did so on behalf of Hachette. She spoke on Bloomberg TV in September 2014, and I don’t recall any comments since then.

Do you suppose there is something going on behind the scenes?

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Greg Strandberg May 22, 2015 um 11:33 am

One of the things I look for in a friend is someone that points out the error of my ways and then tells me what I should be doing. Not.

fjtorres May 22, 2015 um 11:52 am

Well, one possibility is that the randy Penguin *isn’t* going agency.
or, maybe the AE report understates indie market share.

Or maybe she stubbed her toe.

Nate Hoffelder May 22, 2015 um 1:14 pm

I wonder if perhaps the audiobook rumors are true?

August Wainwright May 22, 2015 um 1:34 pm

If you’ve ever seen the show Parks and Rec on NBC, there’s an episode about a cult that regularly forecasts the end of the world, and calls themselves the Reasonablists. When someone questions the name, the response is "it’s really difficult to debate a group called the Reasonablists".

I think of this every time I see the words "Roxana Robinson of the Author’s Guild".

Anyways, and more specifically, in reference to her statement about writing for HuffPost or Medium:

“I don’t know that anyone has figures on sales that result from this kind of writing (for free),”

I believe there’s a gentleman named Jeff Goins who may have numbers to prove the outright lie contained in that statement. I’d love to see him throw numbers out. He regularly contributes to Medium, and seems to be doing very well selling direct to readers.

Also, he’s self-published.

Peter Winkler May 22, 2015 um 3:59 pm

"Yes, writing blog posts for free devalues writing.

At the same time, writing a whole book for free and submitting it to a publisher in the hopes of getting a tiny advance doesn’t in any way devalue writing, no sirree."

The two activities are not comparable. When you write something for your blog, you have no expectation of payment.

When you write a book, or a partial, on spec, you are hoping someone will buy it.

Even if you end up publishing it yourself, you actually have to produce the damn thing in its entirety before you can hope to profit from it.

Mackay Bell May 22, 2015 um 9:59 pm

They are not the same thing, but Nate is right, thousands of writers working unpaid and then submitting their books blind to publishers does devalue writing. It made publishers think writers are a dime a dozen and they can offer them whatever they want for the "opportunity" to be published.

Likewise, back in the bad old days, thousands of writers would line up for the few writing jobs available at newspapers and consider themselves lucky if they could make a living wage.

The internet has changed all that, better for some, worse for others. You can self-publish both novels and blogs so you don’t have to beg for the opportunity to be read. I think ultimately, this is a much better arrangement for writers who have talent and like to work hard. Not so good for writers who preferred to work through a system that kept others out.

Nate Hoffelder May 23, 2015 um 7:22 am

Actually, I don’t think it devalues writing and I’m not seriously expecting authors to get paid a living wage (it’s simply not practical).

The point I was trying to make was that she was railing against one of the core pillars of the book publishing industry. Most book authors don’t get paid anywhere near the minimum wage for their work, and if they were then the book industry would not be able to publish nearly as many books every year.

To complain about authors writing blog posts for free while avoiding the topic of all of the books written for free is simply nuts. They are the same issue.

Maria (BearMountainBooks) May 23, 2015 um 9:12 am

The free books are a larger problem for income, but it’s harder to attack the authors for trying the technique. And you can’t blame Huffington or Amazon for a decision made by the author. At this point no one forces an author to put up a free book (although there is definitely pressure to do so just to compete.)

fjtorres May 23, 2015 um 1:08 pm

Amazon slightly discourages the practice by limiting the free days a Select title can be free.

Peter Winkler May 22, 2015 um 4:07 pm

authors who write for publications such as The Huffington Post aren’t doing it under the misaprehension that they’re contributing to a charity. For Ms. Robinson’s information, it’s knows as a quid pro quo.

I’ve blogged on several occasions at The Huffington Post, only to try to bring some attention to my book.

The one exception was my piece about voting for third parties that they published on the eve of the 2012 election. I wrote that purely to express my feelings, and, whaddaya know, it helped sell a few copies of my book. Non of my posts in their book section ever moved the needle.

Barry Marks May 22, 2015 um 4:17 pm

The term "devalue" also has connotations other than financial and in many ways what she describes increases the value of books. Certainly being able to find excerpts from books as search results has great cultural value.

Any time an author writes an informative article that increases her exposure and informs the world. That certainly has value.

As to whether they get paid for it, I suspect they do and if they don’t I see no objection to their being paid. But asking them not to write; trying to stop Google from using book phrases in searches, isn’t helping anyone.

That’s almost as silly as labeling Pasteur’s work as unfair to bacteria.


Maria (BearMountainBooks) May 22, 2015 um 8:00 pm

Well, if what she was trying to say was that writing free blog posts for Huffington Post is not likely to make an author money, she is right. And if she was trying to say that writers used to write such blog posts and articles for money, she was also correct. Now newspapers and blogs are struggling to make money and they have found they can offer a "guest post" and they don’t have to pay the writer because many bloggers/writers will do the post hoping for "exposure." The problem is that it doesn’t work out in the author’s favor very often, but there are few alternatives for writers. Small magazines, newspapers and other venues simply don’t pay for articles anymore. I don’t think that is really the writers' fault. It’s the changing landscape. There is a lot of information available on the web–and if people aren’t paying for newspapers (online or otherwise) newspapers are also not going to pay for content.

I don’t think it is because Amazon (or anyone else) has devalued the written word; it is simply because the internet has made the written word–fiction or non-fiction, articles and whatnot–available for the cost of the bandwidth. You can’t turn the clock back. Technology changes things. We writers have to figure out how to produce a product that the customer is willing to pay for. If we can’t, we have to do something else for a living.

fjtorres May 22, 2015 um 10:23 pm

…or how to get the product to the readers who are willing to pay.

And readers *are* willing to pay for genre fiction as long as the price is decent.

They are now less willing to pay high prices than they were before, when the only choices were high prices, public libraries, or used books. (Never mind that two of those options resulted in no payment to authors.)

However, the very trends that so alarm tradpub apologists (declining average ebook prices, declining print sales, and declining BPH market share) when combined with *increased* overall trade book spending by consumers, adds up to more books being bought new and more revenue finding its way to authors. (Even if all the growth in author earnings ends up going to indies and not gatekept authors.)

More books being bought and more money going to the creators?
If that’s a bad thing then we need more of that kind of "bad".

Technology isn’t disrupting literature, all it is disrupting is *one* previously dominant distribution system and empowering an older, preexisting distribution system. There was literature before the giant multinationals controlled publishing and there will still be literature when that control is but a faded memory.

David Gaughran May 23, 2015 um 6:55 am

“I don’t know that anyone has figures on sales that result from this kind of writing (for free)."

Except for every blogger who uses affiliate codes.

TheSFReader May 23, 2015 um 9:25 am

(From a software developper) I guess she should have taken an other example, since more than a few software developpers are paid for working on software that is distributed for free (Free and Open Source Software). While not many gets on the front page, a bitg part of the net’s infrastructure runs on operating systems and software that is free to use/ reuse etc.

And many programmers contribute to this ecosystem for free, even unpaid.
Some of those "free" programmers get later employed by businesses to contribute/maintain the software they created, or to adapt it to the business needs.

Are they devaluing software ? I don’t think so. I think they’re creating value, that many benefit from. And if they keep contributing, it’s probably because they think it’s worth their time/energy.

Greg Strandberg May 23, 2015 um 10:49 am

Maybe your writing isn’t that valuable to begin with. To me, this woman’s isn’t, and my writing is the same for her. My writing has no value to this woman, and about 99% of the people reading this right now.

So…how does putting it out for free devalue it when it had no value to begin with. I’m sorry, was my writing valuable to you? I think we all agree that it’s not and it wasn’t before. I doubt it will be tomorrow either.

Robinson’s writing has value…to herself. Perhaps some friends and family and industry types also see value in it, and maybe even some readers. I don’t, so to me, I could care less what she does with it.

Let’s face it, most writing is worthless.

Smart Debut Author May 23, 2015 um 11:28 am

Ah, it’s The Snowflake Queen again! 🙂

Remember this? 😀

Learning from her past mistakes isn’t really The Snowflake Queen’s strong suite.

Nate Hoffelder May 23, 2015 um 11:29 am

Yep. I mentioned that in the post.

Smart Debut Author May 23, 2015 um 12:35 pm

As far as something going on behind the scenes, let’s wait until the next official release of AAP numbers. I suspect we’ll learn that BPH profits are getting hammered. After all, Amazon has been carrying them financially and subsidizing their profitability for years. And they just forced Amazon to stop. 😀

That can’t end well for them.

fjtorres May 23, 2015 um 1:31 pm

The next AAP report will probably discover that the ebook "fad" has petered out and ebook sales are dropping as much as print sales.

And the quest for the next lottery winner will intensify.

Indies will keep on rolling merrily along.

William Ash May 26, 2015 um 10:01 am

Lets see. It is OK for a multi-billion dollar company like Google to take an entire copy of my book to create a product to generate ad revenue to make more money. The reason this is OK is because people browse bookstores.

Then, having a multi-million dollar media organization not pay you for content they publish and even ask you to write, is the same as you writing a book MS from your own choice, but getting rejected from a publisher that never asked you to write it nor does it publishes it?

And lastly, Amazon trying to decouple price from cost and pushing prices of books lower is a bigger threat to self publishers than traditional publishers. While Robinson is ignorant of software developers and their business, she is right that people are being exploited.

As far as this rebuttal from Hoffhelder, I wish he was more focused on the interests of the writer than simply lashing out at the establishment. It might make for a less incoherent piece. He just sounds bitter.

‘Easy’ Book Publishing Is Hard | Digital Book World May 27, 2015 um 8:06 am

[…] …No, They Aren’t (Ink, Bits & Pixels) Reviewing Robinson’s argument, one industry watcher points out that the publishing business itself rests on a similar form of spec work: Authors submit completed manuscripts to agents and publishers in the hope of later seeing earnings from them. While there’s a lot more to it than that, it’s true that the connections between the investments authors make in their work and the rewards they’re likely to see from it can grow especially blurry in the digital marketplace. Related: How Authors Balance Risk and Reward […]

San Fran November 20, 2015 um 6:31 pm

There are a lot of reasons to hate on Amazon, but this issue isn’t one of them because Amazon publishing has done more to further authors than the Author’s Guild could ever hope to do.

In the old days — which, presumably this woman would like to see returned — if you couldn’t get your work published at a house, you couldn’t become a published author.

That’s the choice, BabyCakes, and personally I don’t want to see those days return. So I’m all in with Bezos on this one.

Trevor April 19, 2016 um 3:01 am

The trend in lots of markets is towards free (ask anyone in the adult film industry) but that doesn’t mean the sky is falling.

Free books have been here as long as I’ve been alive, it’s just that I had to take them back to the library after a while.

When I grew up, album sleeves had "home taping is killing music" printed on them but there’s more choices of music now than there ever was when I was young.

Things change, markets adapt.

Some of those free books have an "in app" purchase – a link to other books by the same author, some of which are chargeable.

Adapt and survive is a cliche but it’s probably better than "mutter and growl and don’t adapt".

The Case for Joining The Authors Guild, Or Why I Joined | The Digital Reader October 16, 2016 um 11:20 pm

[…] on Author Solutions, its backward position on Google Books, its hostility towards one of authors' biggest business partners, its position on the DMCA, and its apparent willingness to be the mouthpiece for the legacy […]

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