The Authors’ Wish List Goes In: How Will The Guild Council Respond?

iStockphoto / tostphoto
iStockphoto / tostphoto

“Can The Authors Guild Become An Authors’ Guild?”

That’s the Eislerian wit at work, sync-ing up both challenge and hope in one canny phrase, with which he kindly tweeted my recap of Friday’s #FutureChat on the issue of author advocacy.

His phrasing captures the friction behind quickly but smoothly moving developments.

For background, here is my piece from Thursday: The Door Opens, So Quietly: Self-Publishers Now Can Join The Authors Guild. And as we got into Friday’s #FutureChat on the topic with The Bookseller’s FutureBook community, two major types of reactions from authors came quickly into view:

  1. There was from many writers a fairly disdainful response along the lines of “The Guild has always been there to serve the publishers, not authors — so forget it.”
  2. And then there was what we might term the cautiously interested reaction: “What benefits could the Authors Guild offer us?”

The first response is, in fact, emotional and impractical. Asserting an historical dislike of the Authors Guild (AG) as something unchangeable overlooks the fact that a powerful influx of new, independent professional membership could have a profound and permanent impact on the nature and focus of the organization.

Barry Eisler
Barry Eisler

Much more promising is the potential outcome of the second reaction.

A quiet exchange of messages continued moving back and forth following the #FutureChat session, and led to author Joe Konrath producing a “wish list” and updating it with some good observations from Eisler and with Hugh Howey’s confirmation — in this write: For the Authors Guild & Other Legacy Publishing Pundits.

This bit of teamwork came at the request of independent author and Guild council member C.J. Lyons. And in her comment following Konrath’s incisive, specific list, Lyons backed this 12-point rundown, writing:

I think this list is great–and it mirrors my own personal wish list, so good to know I’m not alone!…Change never happens overnight, but it never happens at all if you don’t take that first step and I think the AG is committed to that…it’s one of the reasons why I agreed to join their advisory council.

The emphasis is mine: “Change never happens overnight, but it never happens at all if you don’t take that first step.”

These community-leading independent authors are taking a first step here, just as much as the Guild has done.

So before we go on to look at those points, let’s stop and acknowledge that even if nothing whatever comes from this exercise in author relations, these things are evident:

  • This is unprecedented. That particular door quietly swinging open and this externally generated list of points behind handed through into the council room? — new.  Not business as usual. No, nothing has changed, not yet. But the potential surely has.
  • The Guild — not without some stumbles but also not without some courage — has made what eventually could lead to a pivotal change in its mission and performance, by fundamentally altering its long-standing regulations about who can and cannot become a member in good standing of its organization.
  • A group of highly influential non-aligned authors — easily representative of the newly empowered independent and/or self-publishing movement — has worked together since the earlier article here on Thursday, to respond to the concept of Guild membership with understandable caution, granted, but also with clarity and candor.

I’m applauding everybody on this one, on both sides of that doorway. You’re all looking good.

And, while I’ll be mentioning patience before we’re done here, I’m going to say it this way now: take your time.

Let’s look at the Konrath-led wish list.

The Complaints

Joe Konrath
Joe Konrath

I’ll hit the top lines on these, and will encourage you to look for Konrath’s discussion under each point in the article.

(1) Support the authors in the Harlequin lawsuit and fight to get their backlist rights returned. Then do the same for all members who want to get their backlist rights returned.

On this one, I’m particularly impressed that Konrath blows away the what could an outfit like the Guild do for us? confusion. He writes that recovering rights is “the single most-asked question I get via email.” And having recouped his own rights, he goes on to write: “I can’t help. But the AG could.”

Those final four words should sound very good to the Guild leadership. While we don’t know what council might do, we do know that one of the most influential indies in the world just put to rest the much-too-facile, hair-trigger assertion you hear from many authors that they have nothing to gain from Guild membership.

(2) Draft a petition to raise ebook royalties for all authors. If a publisher doesn’t comply, these authors will no longer submit work to that publisher. If you could align with a like-minded AAR [Association of Authors’ Representatives, the agents’ guild], real change could be instituted.

(3) Demand that unconscionable contract terms are removed in legacy boilerplate, including holding rights for term of copyright, impossible rights reversion clauses, the elimination of non-compete clauses, the elimination of first option clauses.

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Here, of course, Howey has been the community’s most resonant voice, articulating with steady strength an overview of standard contract features in urgent need of serious review. Here, for example, is his recent essay, This Needs To Change.

(4) Pressure Hachette into taking one of Amazon’s offers to monetarily compensate Hachette authors for the duration of the negotiations.

(5) Find some actual group health insurance that benefits authors who live someplace other than New York.

(6) Disseminate information for heirs on dealing with IP [intellectual property] after the author passes away.

(7) Coordinate with David Gaughran to petition and publicly disapprove of any publisher engaged in vanity publishing.

The most visible inference here would be, of course, to the sustained campaign author Gaughran has mounted against the prevalence of Author Solutions companies and liaisons in the industry.

(8) Issue an easy to understand public statement on what AG membership dues are being spent on, and where the AG is getting extra funds, if any.

(9) Stop spending time and money trying to combat piracy.

(10) Offer a directory of vetted, recommended third parties who can assist authors in self-publishing.

(11) An Author’s Guild worthy of the name would be all over the legacy practice of paying out royalties only twice a year.

(12) Stop censoring comments on the AG blog.

The Cultures

In Konrath’s final point about how comments are handled by the authors Guild at its blog — and in his accompanying discussion of the point — we get a look at one of the trickiest elements of moments like this: Chances at cooperation and growth can be scuttled by something no more substantive than clashing cultures.

The Authors Guild demonstrated in the blog post that triggered our coverage that there are easily identifiable cultural differences in the two elements of the author community now eyeing each other, so warily, through that open doorway.

The culture of the Guild is such that — a little bafflingly, maybe — it doesn’t link out from an AG blog post to non-member material. Thus it did not link to the independents’ petition of Hachette. That produced an ounce of irritation that drew pounds of consternation down onto the Guild’s heads.

What’s more, so stable, apparently, is Guild culture that the person or persons putting together that post didn’t seem to realize that a simple parenthetical note could have explained why two open letters were linked (they were by members) and the independents’ petition wasn’t linked (it was by non-members).

Furthermore, Guild culture doesn’t seem to inform the blog page’s management that after all this concern, such a note could so very easily be added. Yes, still. As in, how ’bout now? May I? In light of recent questions about the matter, we’d just like to inform you that our policy is to link only to members’ external content, and that no offense was intended in our lack of a link to the Howey-Konrath petition…or words to that effect. I’d like to think that such an ibuprofen-saving courtesy could be easily accommodated. Obviously, no one got up on the morning of the 23rd of July, eager to obfuscate and irritate. The trick in this regard, going forward, will simply be to step back before pushing the button and asking, “If I were a non-member, is there anything here that could send the wrong signal? And if there is, maybe a note could help things be clearer.”  Lyons could be an invaluable second set of eyes for such purposes.

In addition, Guild culture doesn’t seem to be comfortable, for now, with the Web’s traditions of open comment. Konrath has made the point very forcefully (but without Konwrathful excess) that the organization’s “membership mission statement brags that they are committed to the ‘protection of authors’ rights under the First Amendment,'” while, of course, this one instance saw the Guild close comments after 25 entries.

Roxana Robinson
Roxana Robinson

When I interviewed the gracious Roxana Robinson for the piece of July 31, I got no hint that she didn’t understand how this could cause frustration outside the organization. Was she surprised at the vehemence of the reaction? Yes, she said. But she is the very new president of a very old Guild. And I would bet (she did not tell me this) that there could be customs at the Guild that she is only discovering, herself, the hard way.

And. Before anybody celebrates a last laugh, let’s note that our marvelous independent authorial community has some minor points of culture we might consider, as well.

For example, there’s the tweeterie.

Eisler has flagged the fact that Robinson seems not to have a Twitter handle.

While I didn’t ask Robinson about this, I’d guess that it’s a choice made by the person, not the Guild (which is on Twitter, at @AuthorsGuild). Many authors don’t have handles. And, boy, that is no help to someone like me whose works lies so deep in the blue bird’s nest. But I’m hard-pressed to single out Robinson for being a Twitter refusenik. Granted, acceptance of the presidency might suggest she embrace some social-media interaction. But creative people, as we all know, struggle like Strangelove with tweetly distractions and Robinson is a producing author of a handsome round of titles.

The self-publishing community also has a culture of  robust discussion. Have I said this diplomatically? The tone can be strident, the volume can be high, the messages can be contradictory.

This is, after all, a proudly diverse realm of writers. It sometimes sounds, as tornado survivors always put it, “like a freight train came through here.”

And this is why the wish list drawn up by Konrath, with Eisler, Lyons, and Howey does everyone a favor beyond the current moment with the Guild: it puts some structure on the on issues. Howey has been doing a lot of this, himself, in recent posts, laying out concise sets of issues. This kind of delineation is helpful to all of us.

What Happens Next?

C.J. Lyons
C.J. Lyons

Lyons has said in her comment at the Konrath wish list that she is communicating the 12 steps here to the organization.

If I were asked where things should go — and I have not been asked, mind you — I’d suggest that Lyons and her fellow Guild council members choose one of the 12 wish list issues and propose, through Lyons, working together with independent authors on that single issue. Oh, dread word, I know, but maybe (duck!) a committee (told you to duck) is right in an instance like this, a committee of several Guild members and several independent authors, all led by Lyons — because she crosses between Fringe units.

These two cultures are not close in many ways, that’s true. And yet they do live and write in the same world.

I believe they can find common ground readily on at least one point, and probably more. Making a project, all voluntary, of just a single area could help everybody get to know each other. Share a few laughs about penguins and Puget Sound.  Share a few drinks (preferably with me). Learn what sits well with each other and what doesn’t. Create a kind of demilitarized zone in which it’s okay to ask a silly or sensitive question.

The starting point hasn’t moved, and there’s no need to worry, it won’t: authors need a much more central role in the industry ahead and, thanks to the tools of the digital dynamic, they can have it. But to discard the long-running apparatus and presence of the Guild — or to become locked in an embittered antagonism over perceived mistakes of the past — will be counterproductive and wasteful of energy so much better put into writing, working together, and publishing wisely, each author choosing her and his best path with the support of the community.

Now that the wish list has been handed through, the next move probably is on the Guild’s side.

And patience is the key. Lyons must have a lot of folks to confer with. She’s the right person for the job, and both sides are lucky to have her.

Good job, everybody. The door still is open. And that, alone, is something. TC mark

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