Letter from Richard Russo

Below you’ll find  a letter I received today from the Authors Guild. It included a request to share the letter with other writer friends. I decided to do so through my blog.

I am a member of the Authors Guild. I’m not saying all writers need to join the Authors’ Guild (it is quite expensive), but it is an organization that represents ALL writers (fiction and non-fiction), and in this letter I feel Russo makes some important points. You decide if you agree or not.

An Open Letter to My Fellow Authors

It’s all changing, right before our eyes. Not just publishing, but the writing life itself, our ability to make a living from authorship. Even in the best of times, which these are not, most writers have to supplement their writing incomes by teaching, or throwing up sheet-rock, or cage fighting. It wasn’t always so, but for the last two decades I’ve lived the life most writers dream of: I write novels and stories, as well as the occasional screenplay, and every now and then I hit the road for a week or two and give talks. In short, I’m one of the blessed, and not just in terms of my occupation. My health is good, my children grown, their educations paid for. I’m sixty-four, which sucks, but it also means that nothing that happens in publishing—for good or ill—is going to affect me nearly as much as it affects younger writers, especially those who haven’t made their names yet. Even if the e-price of my next novel is $1.99, I won’t have to go back to cage fighting.

Still, if it turns out that I’ve enjoyed the best the writing life has to offer, that those who follow, even the most brilliant, will have to settle for less, that won’t make me happy and I suspect it won’t cheer other writers who’ve been as fortunate as I. It’s these writers, in particular, that I’m addressing here. Not everyone believes, as I do, that the writing life is endangered by the downward pressure of e-book pricing, by the relentless, ongoing erosion of copyright protection, by the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them, by the “information wants to be free” crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to on-line sites that sell pirated (read “stolen”) books, and even by militant librarians who see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to “lend” our e-books without restriction. But those of us who are alarmed by these trends have a duty, I think, to defend and protect the writing life that’s been good to us, not just on behalf of younger writers who will not have our advantages if we don’t, but also on behalf of readers, whose imaginative lives will be diminished if authorship becomes untenable as a profession.

I know, I know. Some insist that there’s never been a better time to be an author. Self-publishing has democratized the process, they argue, and authors can now earn royalties of up to seventy percent, where once we had to settle for what traditional publishers told us was our share. Anecdotal evidence is marshaled in support of this view (statistical evidence to follow). Those of us who are alarmed, we’re told, are, well, alarmists. Time will tell who’s right, but surely it can’t be a good idea for writers to stand on the sidelines while our collective fate is decided by others. Especially when we consider who those others are. Entities like Google and Apple and Amazon are rich and powerful enough to influence governments, and every day they demonstrate their willingness to wield that enormous power. Books and authors are a tiny but not insignificant part of the larger battle being waged between these companies, a battleground that includes the movie, music, and newspaper industries. I think it’s fair to say that to a greater or lesser degree, those other industries have all gotten their asses kicked, just as we’re getting ours kicked now. And not just in the courts. Somehow, we’re even losing the war for hearts and minds. When we defend copyright, we’re seen as greedy. When we justly sue, we’re seen as litigious. When we attempt to defend the physical book and stores that sell them, we’re seen as Luddites. Our altruism, when we’re able to summon it, is too often seen as self-serving.

But here’s the thing. What the Apples and Googles and Amazons and Netflixes of the world all have in common (in addition to their quest for world domination), is that they’re all starved for content, and for that they need us. Which means we have a say in all this. Everything in the digital age may feel new and may seem to operate under new rules, but the conversation about the relationship between art and commerce is age-old, and artists must be part of it. To that end we’d do well to speak with one voice, though it’s here we demonstrate our greatest weakness. Writers are notoriously independent cusses, hard to wrangle. We spend our mostly solitary days filling up blank pieces of paper with words. We must like it that way, or we wouldn’t do it. But while it’s pretty to think that our odd way of life will endure, there’s no guarantee. The writing life is ours to defend. Protecting it also happens to be the mission of the Authors Guild, which I myself did not join until last year, when the light switch in my cave finally got tripped. Are you a member? If not, please consider becoming one. We’re badly outgunned and in need of reinforcements. If the writing life has done well by you, as it has by me, here’s your chance to return the favor. Do it now, because there’s such a thing as being too late.

Richard Russo
December 2013

Click here for the Guild application form.

Click for the PDF version of this letter.


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6 Responses to Letter from Richard Russo

  1. Annette Briggs says:

    Very thought-provoking, Maris. Thanks for the input. All the best, Annette

  2. Melissa Keir says:

    What an interesting post. What does it mean to join the Author’s Guild?

    • Maris Soule says:

      Melissa, Authors Guild has been around for years. As I said, it’s pricy. It’s $90 a year for membership if you’re not making the big bucks. The membership cost goes up with your income. (A certain percentage.) That means Those writers on the NYT best selling list pay a lot more than $90. The Guild does a lot of legal work for writers, filing class action suits. (The most recent, which I know has gone on for over 14 years has been against Google’s practice of putting books out for free…including all of mine. So far that suit hasn’t been resolved to the Guild’s–or writers–satisfaction.) They will go over contracts. (I believe they do that for non-members as well as members if you feel you have a problem with the publisher.) My advice: go to their web site. That should answer your question.

  3. Paula Geister says:

    Richard Russo is such an articulate man and did a good job with this letter. He also happens to be a favorite author of mine. He makes some very good points. In fact, twice this week I was defending copyright laws and there were folks who looked at me like I had two heads: “what do you mean, we can’t just grab it off the web and reprint it?” (yikes)

  4. Phyllis Humphrey says:

    Join the Author’s Guild? Are you joking? What have they ever done to help authors? Are they fighting to get authors more than 25% of net on digital sales? Are they forcing publishers to pay authors oftener than twice a year? (When financial matters travel around the world in seconds?) Have they persuaded publishers to stop trying to grab more rights in the contracts they offer? Amazon is not the enemy. Instead it has given authors a chance to make money with their work..

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Phyllis. I wanted other points of view. I appreciate your comments, and what you mentioned are definitely areas where writers do need someone or an agency standing up for them.