The Door Opens, So Quietly: Self-Publishers Now Can Join The Authors Guild

iStockphoto / scibak
iStockphoto / scibak

Hear Me Now, Believe Me Later

Authors…need to be part of the group that works out the future direction of this business.

That comes from the lead editorial in this week’s edition of The Bookseller. It will be on the stands on Friday in London. The editorial, from the magazine’s Philip Jones, will be online shortly after that.

Jones writes in his piece, wryly headlined “United Authors Unite”:

This bestseller group [he’s referring to Douglas Preston’s Authors United group] join indie authors such as Orna Ross, Joanna Penn, Hugh Howey, and Joe Konrath, who have taken a lead in debating how self-publishing can help reshape all of publishing. Indeed, some of the best analysis about future publishing comes from these “newbies”, as last week’s launch of Kindle Unlimited in the US showed.

And Jones notes that it’s not as if there’s no representation out there:

It would be wrong to imply that authors don’t already have a voice: in the UK the Society of Authors, and in the US the much maligned Authors Guild, represent their membership with vigour.

“Much maligned?” What, our Authors Guild? Oh, yes.

Just a week ago, when a blog post titled Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors went up at the Authors Guild’s site, some 25 comments stuck there (some were moderated out). Most were the kind that could burn holes in your red-checked tablecloth on that summery picnic you were trying to enjoy.

The post led with a welcoming line — “The Authors Guild is committed to an inclusive, big-tent approach to its mission as the published writer’s advocate” — and followed by pointing to “contrasting viewpoints of traditionally published and self-published authors.”

Mentioned were the “Authors United” letter from Douglas Preston to readers  now signed by more than 900 authors and calling on Amazon to end its pre-order-suppressing, shipping-delay, and discount-adjusting tactics in its negotiations with Hachette. More about that is here in this interview with Preston at The FutureBook.

Also mentioned was author Richard Russo’s open letter. (He is the guild’s vice-president.) From that one, the Guild’s post quoted:

“The primary mission of the Authors Guild has always been the defense of the writing life,” he began. “What we care about is a healthy [literary] ecosystem where all writers, both traditionally and independently published, can thrive.”

And, between those references, there was this paragraph:

In response to Preston’s letter to Amazon, self-published authors circulated a petition to Hachette asking it to “work on a resolution that keeps e-book prices reasonable and pays authors a fair wage.” Authors Guild Council Member CJ Lyons was a prominent signatory. In a cover letter addressed to their readers, the self-published writers praised Amazon for keeping prices low and the Amazon platforms for “giving all writers a chance to reach an audience.”

There was no link to the petition mentioned, and I’m not going to link to it, either.

Just kidding! Sorry about your blood pressure. I don’t know what came over me.

Here it is, and at this writing, the petition to Hachette’s CEO Michael Pietsch has 7,572 signatures in support of its request that Hachette “Stop fighting low prices and fair wages.”

Sarah Weinman
Sarah Weinman

And as Sarah Weinman at Publishers Lunch noted, the Authors Guild’s post attracted something less than hosannas:

The comments thread drew a variety of pent-up complaints about the Guild until it was closed (and some writers complained in their posts that earlier efforts to comment had been blocked). Among the posts is an anonymous Hachette author: “I’m not financially successful enough to wave away the repeated offers of fair recompense for the financial damage I’ve suffered. I have no idea why Hachette, the Author’s Guild, and some of Hachette’s most successful and renowned authors have all decided to turn them down on my behalf. I don’t dare put my name to any complaint, however, because I don’t want to jeopardize my relationships with my agent and my publishers. This is precisely why we need a functional Author’s Guild.”

Here’s a small sampling of more commentary, both from traditionally published and self-publishing authors:

The Authors Guild is a joke. How can you link to two of the petitions and not link to the one which has had the most overwhelming support? The Authors Guild is on the wrong side of history once again, just like it was about e-books, price-fixing, and Author Solutions…What I haven’t understood through this whole mess, is why the authors aren’t demanding better contracts from Hachette. Hachette is the entity who determines how much the authors earn–not Amazon…Nice job once again, Publishers’ Guild! Your bias shines right through…Authors Guild is deep in the pocket of publishers. Denying it won’t change the simple fact.

In short, things didn’t go well.

Philip Jones
Philip Jones

And if you’ll run back up to the top of our article here, and look at Jones’ clear-voiced call for more effective, honest, respectful inclusion of the author corps in the industry’s evolution and decision-making, you’ll realize that both the Guild — as the most established author-advocacy outfit — and the authors, themselves, probably would do a lot better if they were working together.

As Jones puts it:

Authors are rarely invited to the top-table when it comes to the big decisions. Authors may not be consciously excluded, but they are rarely included.

And in the States, the truth of what Jones is saying is not helped by a bitter tradition of rancorous disagreement between many authors and the Guild, particularly between independent authors and the Guild.

Let’s Step Back Only Briefly

Howey, the leading author-activist whose observations find a footing in so many debates in the business today, had written in January a comprehensive dressing down of what he sees as the Guild’s shortcomings. In case there had been any doubt, this was a declaration of opposition.

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

At the time of this influential post, Bread and Roses, it stood as one of the plainest enunciations to that date by Howey of his own industry-political focus. It took into account the Guild’s ongoing opposition to Amazon on several issues, and it chastised the organization forcefully:

The Authors Guild should be championing Amazon for what they’ve done for readers and writers.

At that time, Scott Turow was Guild’s outgoing chief. And even Turow’s supporters might concede if you offer them a Campari on the rocks that his service to the organization might not unfairly be described as polarizing. Many felt he did a good job. Many others really, really did not.

Even beyond issues of Amazonian ardor or otherwise, the most general, overarching, abiding complaint about the Turow-led Guild (and about some administrations before Turow’s) has been, in a word, elitism. The Guild is generally painted by the many who don’t like it as an a promotional club that protects and enhances the career gains of the most already-successful, traditionally contracted authors, the perceived “haves” as opposed to the “have-nots” for whom standard publishing deals and conditions are frequently described by critics as flatly punitive.

Drawing on 1912 textile-mill strikes led by women whose call for fair wages and fair treatment was sloganized as “bread and roses,” Howey wrote:

Once again, you have the very people being denigrated and judged and barred from entry working out here on the curb for the better treatment of those on the factory floor. We have to. Because we sure as hell aren’t getting any help from our leadership.

So completely is the Guild seen by its critics as having abdicated its responsibility that when, on Tuesday evening this week, Amazon issued “Update re: Amazon/Hachette Business Interruption” — in which Seattle announced its rationale for lower ebook prices — Barry Eisler titled his response: So the Real Authors Guild is…Amazon?”

The aria-Amazonia does not mention the Guild at all. Nevertheless, its supporters pipe its music straight into the AG’s offices.

Barry Eisler
Barry Eisler

Eisler is the most seasoned of our independent-author firebrands, and he knows how to take advantage of the moment to define what he sees as a corrupt assumption beloved of upper-echelon Guilders:

 The biggest bestsellers in the industry — say, James Patterson, or Doug Preston, or Richard Russo, or Scott Turow — sell the majority of their books in paper. After all, they’ve won the distribution lottery and their books are available in every airport kiosk, Wal-Mart, drugstore, and supermarket across the land. So their interest in retarding the growth of digital — where the same distribution is available to everyone — and in preserving the position of paper is identical to that of their publishers. It stands to reason they would fight to maintain the system that has made them so rich. But if you’re a legacy-published author whose sales are increasingly digital, you need to understand that the legacy strategy of pricing ebooks high is costing you money. Is that really something you want to help perpetuate? Yes, it works for James Patterson, but what is it costing you?

Understand, then, how fundamental are the rifts between the Guild’s faithful and the digitally enabled dissent. In Eisler’s evocation of what he casts as a scandalous reversal of priorities, he updates the Howeyan complaint, handcuffs it to the Preston “Authors United” effort and walks that briefcase directly over to the Guild:

It’s going to be fascinating to see how the “Authors Guild” and “Authors United” try to spin this. Fascinating in no small part because Amazon is taking the very position on digital royalties you would expect — indeed, you would insist on — from any organization worthy of inclusion of the word “Authors” in its marquee. Instead we have Amazon championing authors, and “Authors” championing publishers!

And that’s your context: no love lost.

So I Ask The New Guild’s President: What’s Up With This Hated Blog Post?

Poor Roxana Robinson can barely get in a word. I stop the new Authors Guild board president just seconds into her first comment to me. In fact, I interrupt her frequently during our interview; there’s much to discuss. Despite this, she’s a delightful, quick, gracious conversationalist. She laughs easily, frets earnestly over things that could have been done better (we’ll get to those), and says nothing more frequently than, “Remember, I’m still very new to this” role of being the AG’s president.

Roxana Robinson
Roxana Robinson

This is the woman who’s having to follow Scott Turow, who left what someone deep inside the Guild has described to me as “a bit of a mess, you know.”

Robinson is the author of five novels, including the highly regarded post-Iraq-service Sparta (FSG/Sarah Crichton Books), in which classical values (semper fidelis) run into the less reliable rage of modern warfare. she also has written the biography Georgia O’Keefe: A Life (UPNE),and three books of stories.

And while she admits that she and her colleagues didn’t expect the July 23 blog post to be such a lightning rod, her eight years on the Guild’s board certainly haven’t been played out with her eyes closed.

“There has been a tradition of a certain amount of resentment toward the Authors Guild by self-published authors,” Robinson says to me, “because in the past, we did not allow them to become members.”

“But we have changed that,” Robinson says, walking right into my first wait-a-minute halt: “And that was one of the reasons we put up that post, just to say, ‘Times are changing, everything is different in the publishing world, and we want to embrace our position that we support professional writers.'”

Two rather remarkable things just went by. Catch them?

  • The second is that the Guild thought that their post — in essence an attempt to say that they have prominent members on both sides of the “petition debate” — would put across a strong message about the organization’s character changing. Evidently its intent was less apparent than hoped.
  • And the first? As it turns out, less than a year ago, the Guild did an about-face and arranged to offer membership to self-publishing authors, not just to authors who had traditional publishing contracts.

Allow me a little emphasis because there are some who don’t know this yet: Self-publishers now can be members of the Guild.

When you look at the post that took such a pasting in its comments, you see a reference there to “indie bestselling” self- and traditionally published author C.J. Lyons, who has been made a member of the Guild’s council. The Guild’s effort to display its embrace of many views lies in this sentence:

It is a sign of the strength and diversity of our membership that two of our Council Members, Douglas Preston and CJ Lyons, have taken different public stands in defense of serious authors.

Those who may have thought that Lyons’ inclusion on the council was in a kind of outside advisory capacity would be incorrect. It turns out that Lyons — and any other self-publishing author who has $500 or more sales in 18 months’ time — can join the Guild as an associate member; for regular membership, the amount is $5,000. Details about membership are here.

At the Guild’s site, click on the “Join Now” button on the right-hand side of the top-bar navigation. You go to this Guild Membership Application page. Scroll down. You’ll come to For Self-Published Authors. And here’s what it says:

Self-published authors who demonstrate that they meet writing income thresholds qualify for Authors Guild membership. The income requirement is intended to assure that the Guild stays focused on its core mission it’s pursued for the past 100 years: serving the interests of those pursuing writing as part of their livelihoods. Depending on your income, self-published authors may qualify as either regular (voting) or associate (non-voting) members. Both categories of membership received full Guild benefits. (Associate membership is a longstanding Guild category for writers with an offer to be traditionally published. It allows our legal department to help writers before they sign their first contract.) Traditionally published and self-published authors become regular members when they meet regular membership criteria.

Once you have demonstrated $500 in book sales in the last 18 months’ time, Robinson tells me, your associate membership dues are $90 for the first year, and then calculated thereafter on a formula based on your earnings — you tell them what level of writerly income to factor in. In fact, Robinson stresses, reporting that income for dues calculation is done on an honor system. “Nobody checks you,” she says.

What About The Missing Link For The Independents’ Petition?

Douglas Preston
Douglas Preston

“Here’s the thing about the link,” Robinson owns right up to this. “We should have made that clear because it really did arouse a lot of enmity. It was simply the fact that Doug Preston is a member of the Authors Guild [as is, of course Russo], and Hugh Howey was not.”

Howey, then, as the main co-author with Joe Konrath of the independents’ petition, didn’t have his document linked because the Guild’s process is to link only to the works and/or sites of members.

“We were linking to members and not to others,” Robinson says, “and they [detractors] took that as a mark of disrespect. We should have made this clear.”

I ask Robinson if it’s indeed Guild policy not to link to non-member material.

“Pretty much,” she said. “I mean, as I understand it — and, again, I’m new to the presidency — but as I understand it we have a system or mechanism that doesn’t allow people to put up links.” Here, she’s talking about links in comments. And so a reader’s effort to share the petition’s missing URL, would have caused that reader’s comment to be moderated out.

Richard Russo
Richard Russo

“We’re also in the process of changing the Web site, which will be all-new in a couple of months,” Robinson added. Hopefully.

Does it make sense for an organization like the Guild to have a policy of linking only to member-related material? Just at first glance from the outside, maybe not.

On the other hand, old organizations gather amazing collections of “we’ve always done it this way” arcana. Who knows what calamitous link once triggered such a rule?

In her earnest, measured efforts to answer these questions, what it sounds like you’re hearing from Robinson is, indeed, someone who’s running hard to catch up with existing procedures and conditions not of her own making.

A Guild In Transition

“We talked about it a great deal,” Robinson says, “and we realized that hundreds and hundreds of people are choosing” self-publishing as their preferred route.

The entry criterion of making $500 from sales in the last 18 months, she says, reflects the organization’s need for a way to establish “that you really are a working author, and not just scribbling stuff down and then declaring it as real work. There are people who are hobbyists. We’re just trying to say we support working, real authors. However you publish is your business. If you’re really in the game, we have your back.”

C.J. Lyons
C.J. Lyons

Robinson is complimentary of Lyons, whose role on the council as its first self-publishing member carries an educational mandate: the council needs just such an entrepreneurial source on many issues they’re discussing.

“I think she’s very wise,” Robinson says of Lyons. “She has a sensible, grounded, intelligent view of things. I really enjoy her comments.”

And in terms of what kind of programming or contextual offer the Guild might make to self-publishing members, Robinson says one thing the group has discussed is how and when authors charge for their work. “Free” may not be a concept that goes down as easily at the Guild as it does in the Kindle Forum.

“Writers are now encouraged to give away their work,” Robinson says. “That’s their most important, most valuable product. And they’re expected to give it away. They write for Goodreads, they write for HuffPo for nothing. And HuffPo was sold for over $300 million; the writers got nothing. And they’re still writing for it.”

Robinson also refers to the Amazon-Hachette negotiations. (Could it only have been months, not years?)

“Some people do ask us,” Robinson says, “why aren’t you leveling your attacks at Hachette?” instead of being critical, as the Guild is, of Amazon in the matter. “And our answer,” she says, “is that Hachette is part of a long, long tradition of publishing. Is it perfect? It is not perfect. Do we protest the ebook royalties” paid by Hachette and other publishers? “We certainly do.

“But the traditional publishing side is old and long-lived. It was started and run for decades by people who loved books and who were not in it to become millionaires. The profit margins were never very large. Then it was taken over by media companies who wanted blockbusters. The strategies changed.

“Amazon is now approaching it as even less a company that loved books” in a pre-parent-corporate era. “It just wants to trade.”

Robinson has several examples of what she and the Guild see as problematic in dealing in and around Amazon’s operation. First, she names used-book activity.

“I have a friend who bought one of my books from Amazon last fall. And he got a message saying, ‘Peter, you read Cost last year. Would you like to trade it in now, sell it to us as a used book, and buy a used copy of  Sparta from us now?’ Those trades have nothing to do with me  — I’ll get no royalties on them. So is Amazon acting on my behalf? Not really.

“And when you go to a book’s page on Amazon,” she says, “right next to the new hardback price is the used book price. In the past, there were laws [saying] that you could not sell used books in the same store as a new bookstore. And that was to protect the writer and the publisher the first time around. It is deeply to our [authors’] disadvantage to have Amazon posting that there” — a used book offer next to a new book offer on an Amazon page. “And our publishers haven’t protected it. And we haven’t protected it.”

When I ask whether this juxtaposition of the new and used offers isn’t part of the long-tail effect on so many books, she concedes, “Long tail is great, and Amazon does that brilliantly. And we all are grateful for that.

“But the other things are not beneficial to us.”

These are the kinds of issues the Guild has — almost stealthily — opened to a potentially vast wave of new, non-aligned membership. Whatever slurs and objections have been heaved at the Authors Guild for years, both by disgruntled traditionalists and by independent writers, the fact on the table now is this:

While a lot of folks weren’t looking, access to the Guild went wide.

“Authors Need A Say In How This Industry Evolves”

In that coming Friday (August 1) editorial I opened with, some authors won’t be pleased to read Philip Jones say that if Douglas Preston were to shutter his Authors United group, it “would be a shame.” But Jones’ very next sentence rewards the reader with an unassailable understanding:

Authors need a say in how this industry evolves: they need to be seen and they need to be heard. 

And I’m looking one last time at the end of Hugh Howey’s “Bread And Roses” essay from January, building its case against the Authors Guild and then ending this way:

Imagine what would happen if authors stood together and the Big Five publishers were unable to sign new contracts for three months…I’m not advocating for a strike. Don’t misunderstand me. I would never do that…But maybe an Authors Guild would want to look into it. If we had one.

Maybe they do have one.

And just didn’t know it.

Somebody seems to have oiled the hinges on the Author Guild’s door very well — maybe WD40, huh? Because it has swung open so quietly that many writers may not know it now stands open.

I did not write “open season”: You might want to spare a thought for Robinson. Even if this big, entrenched outfit can’t transform itself overnight — and even if the execution can look a bit clumsy as it did in last week’s blog post — Robinson is talking a talk that plainly is not business as usual for the Guild. That can take courage in public and an awful lot of hand-holding and consensus building behind the scenes. Before you throw a stone at Robinson ask yourself: Would you like to be the one looking for buy-in from that membership on the idea of integrating indies into their midst? #cmonson

Now you know why C.J. Lyons is seated at the council table.

Does that mean you’re looking at a reformed Guild? Hardly. This is all brand-new.

It does mean you’re looking at a Guild that is risking — is this too strong a term? — risking what eventually could be a true overhaul of its mission.

Robinson says the Guild has 9,000 members. Could self-publishing send in enough independents to sway votes, reconfigure talking points, open new platform planks, establish new leadership, redesign the face this organization turns to the industry?

If the post-Turow Guild is authentically ready to grapple with how “times are changing,” as Robinson puts it, then such a scenario may be ahead.

At the very least, it might make sense for critics of the Guild to hold their fire, look more closely, see if exploration isn’t more productive than kneejerk condemnation.

The Bookseller’s Jones, in a comment on our Douglas Preston interview at this week, mentioned how some of Preston’s detractors want the author to “address all the ills of the book business.”

What if the independent authors’ community — perhaps led by Howey or another trusted figure — could join with the Guild in addressing just one single common issue? Perhaps the need for higher royalty rates on ebooks. Maybe the terms of rights control in contracts? Sharing work on a single, pressing concern — just a test, just a trial run, just a what-if — the two worlds could begin to get acquainted, find shared understandings where they exist and search for new ways to approach disagreements.

What if we could finally start addressing the angry divisions that have made our creative corps such a house divided and find a welcoming, unified community at last for the genius so crucial to our best literature?

This much we know: The Guild has opened its door. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

I’d be very glad to have you join us Friday, 1st August, when our weekly #FutureChat live discussion on Twitter with The Bookseller’s community will focus on Authors United and the very debate that prompts this article. We’ll be live from Writer’s Digest’s Annual Conference in Manhattan at 11 a.m. New York time, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. London, 5 p.m. Berlin/Rome/Paris/Copenhagen, and 3 p.m. GMT. You’ll find that your comments are respected, welcomed, and taken seriously. Thanks.

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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