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“Where Does All the Money Go?” by Roxana Robinson


On June 13, Guild President Roxana Robinson delivered the keynote address at a conference sponsored by Publishing Perspectives and held at New York University’s Kimmel Center. The title of the conference, “Rights and Content in the Digital Age”—took aim at a subject that affects “every writer on the planet.”  Her address follows.


Good morning, and thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.

The topic of this conference is one that affects every writer on the planet. The way our work is used, after we’ve sent it out into the world, has changed drastically, for both good and for ill.

As you all know, the Internet was started by the government, and the world wide web by a scientist. Neither was a commercial concern, which is partly responsible for the strange hybrid world that we now know. If the Internet had been started by the telephone company, we’d all be used to paying for it. But because it was originally a free system, a general belief has arisen to the effect that everything intangible on it should be somehow free. “Information wants to be free,” has become a kind of mantra.

Of course the Internet is nothing like a free system. It’s highly commercial, and the source of astronomically large sums of money—but not by the people who provide the content. So where does all the money come from, and where does it go?

In many ways the Internet has expanded our reach, and this brave new world of electronic communication has effectively created a new system of publishing, of delivering work to the public. The Internet makes it possible to send the written word across the globe with a single click.

We love these new possibilities. We all use Google, for example, one of the greatest search engines in the world. It delivers words, images, and information to the consumer, almost instantaneously, and for free: how great is that?

Then there’s Amazon, the world’s greatest bookseller, spreading itself across all platforms and across all consumer products. We know it started out by selling books, not because Amazon loves what’s inside them, but because they ship well and store easily, and because book buyers are financially responsible.

We are hooked on them both. Amazon used books, and Google used its search engine, to get their heads inside our tent, and now we have two camels in here with us. Is the tent big enough for all of us, or are we being squeezed out?

Authors are important suppliers of content to Google and Amazon, so let’s look at the way these companies treat them.

Ten years ago, the Authors Guild sued Google. Here’s why: Google took 20 million books, both in an out of copyright, and scanned them, without the permission of the writers. They then used them for their own commercial purposes, without compensation. Google claimed that this was fair use, because the delivery system, which made it possible to share these texts with billions of people, made the process itself transformative.

The Authors Guild disagreed. We don’t think that the delivery system itself is transformative. We hold to the original definition of this, which requires some actual transformation of the text. This might mean a parody of the original, or part of the original quoted in another creatively driven text, as in a review, or a critical monograph. Google Books, however, can’t transform anything. The sole value of their offering depends on not changing one word or punctuation mark, and presenting it in its entirety.

Google argued that, though they have appropriated the whole text, they shouldn’t be charged with using it all since they only show limited parts of it to the public.

But Google does use the entire text for its own purposes, and there are many others besides those that we can see. Google uses these texts to enrich its language database, for translation purposes, and for its search engine. When you type in the phrase, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day,” Google will give you the citation in seconds—because of all those scanned texts. That quote is not in copyright, but Google Books has copyrighted texts in its system, which is one reason that they’ve become such a great search engine—because they have taken all this material.

Google claims that they haven’t damaged the authors whose work they’ve appropriated, since they put “Buy” buttons near the texts. They claim that the interested reader will be directed to purchase the book. But during the trial they offered no evidence that this had actually happened, and the way Google Books works, you don’t really have to buy the book to use it.

Supposing I’m a harried and impecunious graduate student, writing a paper on Anna Karenina. I have a day job, and I’m taking classes at night, so I have both time and money constraints. I’m writing a paper on the fact that Tolstoy’s sister had an adulterous affair that resulted in an illegitimate child, and she considered divorce and suicide. I’ve heard this is true, but I need to know the facts, and to be able to cite them from a scholarly text. I search for recent biographies of Tolstoy, and I find a new one on Google Books: Tolstoy: A Russian Life, by Rosamund Bartlett. I type in the word “divorce” and scan the text. Google gives me 14 occurrences, and when I click on one of them it gives the whole page. Not a three-line excerpt. And also the whole page in back and the whole page in front. In fact the available pages go on and on, offering far more material than I need for my paper. So now I’m certainly not going to buy the book. I can read what I need to read on Google Books. I take notes on this passage and click off.

All this is very similar to library use—with one big difference: Google doesn’t buy a single book. Libraries have historically been staunch supporters of books, buying thousands of copies of new ones. A very popular one would be bought in multiple copies, and when one wore out they bought another. Libraries are non-profit institutions, created for the public good. They support writers and they pay full price for new books. In contrast, Google Books is entirely commercial, created for the benefit of the stockholders, and it pays not a red cent to the writers who provide its content.

New technology has made it a lot easier and cheaper for the reader to find the book, but it has drained the financial support for the writer to zero. Rosamund Bartlett receives nothing when I look through her text, despite having written an excellent, well-received book, which may have taken years to research and write, and which was published by a reputable house. But since Google Books has effectively supplanted the library system, it means that the academic market, that once would have supported such worthwhile endeavors, has been gutted. The Authors Guild did a survey of writers’ incomes since 2009. This showed a drop of 30% for writers of over 15 years experience, which means people who have made writing a career.

This isn’t just because of Google Books, of course. There are other ways for the customer to gain access to a book, without a penny going to the writer. Let’s look at Amazon.

Supposing you decide to buy a copy of my most recent novel, Sparta, which came out in 2013. Chances are that you’ll buy it on Amazon. They offer a new paperback copy for $12.98. Also a new copy for $4.33. You can buy a used paperback for $0.01.

Probably you won’t choose to buy the more expensive copy. Why would you? You’ll buy the cheaper one.

But how can a new copy be sold for so little money?

That new copy is probably one that the publisher sold off to make room in the warehouse. If a book’s sales slow down, and the publisher needs the space, he may sell copies at a deep discount to make room for other books. Many contracts have clauses that will allow the publisher to pay no royalties under these circumstances. So the publisher gets paid, and the middleman (in this case that kindly and bookloving site, “Turnpike Liquidators”) will get paid. And of course Amazon will get paid. Only the author will get paid nothing at all for this sale of a new book which she wrote.

These cheap new books, which Amazon puts on the same page as the expensive new ones, will of course cannibalize the sales of the expensive ones. The publishers know this, but they do it because they want some money now, instead of no money now, or maybe some money later. So those cheap books flood onto the market, and every time a customer chooses one of them instead of the expensive one, the author loses royalties.

I asked the editor of a Big Five publishing house how he feels about this juxtaposition, and if he thought the publishers could do something to stop it. He said, There is nothing publishers can do about Amazon. Nothing.

That’s because Amazon has a virtual monopoly on book sales. It dominates the market so completely that it has managed to lower the cost of books drastically across the board. In Europe, by the way, there are laws against discounting books at all. This means that publishers can set the price of a book according to their own costs. Amazon, by offering books at a deep discount, forces the cost of books down. And because of their market domination, publishers are helpless against them. The one time they tried to fight Amazon they were punished by the court. Publishers are helpless here, and writers even more so.

So Google Books has drained royalties from books in copyright, and Amazon has drained revenues from book sales. Writers’ incomes are declining at a frightening rate: we know this isn’t a sustainable model. The idea that writers will write, whether they’re paid or not, is absurd. The only writers who can afford to work without pay are hobbyists. The notion of creators providing content for nothing is supported by the nonsense phrase, “information wants to be free.” This by itself is just as meaningless as saying “mathematics want to be caught.” It has nothing to do with the ownership of intellectual property.

Of course the Internet, and e-commerce, is enormously profitable to some—just not to content creators. The ones who make the profit are the aggregators—entities that amass content and make it available to the public.

The Huffington Post was sold for $218 million dollars, but not a penny of that went to writers, who created this valuable content. Without their content the site was worth nothing. But writers weren’t paid, because of this notion that the Internet is free.

Google, in its defense against our suit, claimed that compensating the authors would have been prohibitively expensive for them. Their solution was to pay them nothing. According to our survey, about half of our respondent writers would be living right around the poverty line, if they depended solely on their writing incomes. Google, by contrast, made $76 billion dollars in revenue last year. So we need to think about whether or not this arrangement is fair, or sustainable.

“Disruption” is another favorite term used to describe what has taken place in the publishing world as the result of electronic changes. Disruption is seen as good for the old-fashioned publishing houses—but the tech companies don’t want any disruption in their own systems: Google, Amazon, and HuffPo strenuously resist alterations that anyone else wants to make in this publishing landscape.

The Internet has brought a tsunami crashing down on the publishing world. In many ways this has been exciting and exhilarating: we’ve been swirled, churned, turned upside down, and hurled into the future. There are lots of new ways to approach publishing, and to present writing to the world, and the Internet plays a huge part in our future.

But in order to continue to bring new ideas to the fore, we need to remind ourselves of what copyright stands for—ownership of property—whom it will benefit—our country—and how to protect it—strengthening the laws. At this point, we at the Authors Guild, and I hope all of you in the audience, are bringing these issues to our national legislation. We’re counting on them to protect these precious qualities: access to ideas, freedom of speech, and the right to ownership of our own intellectual property.

Copyright was created, and written into the Constitution, in order to protect writers from exactly this situation. Without copyright, anyone could decide to publish my book and sell it and keep the money. The Founders believed that writers were necessary to a democratic society, and they wanted them to be free to profit from any value they created.

Because writers—good, serious writers—won’t write no matter what. They have to pay the mortgage, and if writing won’t let them do that, they’ll do something else. And as a society we can’t afford to lose our good, serious writers. They are essential.

Expressive language is the one thing technology cannot create. Only writers can produce ideas, and deliver them through words. So technology needs writers. It can’t afford to starve them into oblivion.

We all need writers. It’s through writers that we understand the world. We read the news, we read history, we read novels and essays and poetry. We depend upon writing that is serious and responsible, that requires time and energy and commitment to produce. A vital democratic society needs writers, we need them to voice our opinions and report on our news and remember our history and imagine our future and bear witness to our human experience. Writers are essential to our lives.

-Roxana Robinson