An Open Letter to my Fellow Authors from novelist Richard Russo

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 [butts] 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

Richard Russo is the author of numerous novels,
including Straight Man and Elsewhere, and won the Pulitzer Prize
for his fabulous novel Empire Falls. This letter was forwarded to
me by novelist Scott Turow, president of The Authors Guild, in order to build
support for the Guild.  We at Novel Rocket believe in the role, goals, and
objectives of The Author’s Guild, and I’ve joined. Novel Rocket encourages all
authors to consider the benefits of the Guild. You can find more information
and a membership application at www.authorsguild.net
or authorsguild.org. Tell
them Novel Rocket sent you!