(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Mary Murrell as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Mary is a Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She received her Ph.D. in 2012 from the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently writing a book about books entitled The Open Book: The Entanglements of Digitization. Formerly, she was the acquisitions editor for anthropology at Princeton University Press.)
In the midst of my fieldwork into the “future of books,” I encountered an equally familiar and unfamiliar character: the academic author. Certainly, I knew a thing or two about such a figure. During my many years as an acquisitions editor at a university press, I had published an awful lot of them, and, as a graduate student doing dissertation fieldwork, I was in preparation to become one myself. As they say, some of my best friends are academic authors! Yet, at the same time, this new academic author, this ethnographic datum before me, was curiously distinct.
The context was the proposed conclusion to litigation over Google’s book digitization program, announced in 2004 and quickly the object of legal dispute. In 2005, author and publisher trade groups had banded together into one large class-action lawsuit, charging Google with massive copyright infringement. For two years, author and publisher representatives negotiated and, in late 2008, they revealed a settlement that resolved their differences. Their plan was essentially to turn Google’s database of digitized books into a commercial product sold by subscription to libraries. This way there would be money for everybody: authors, publishers, and Google—in what was called a “win-win-win.” Despite their confident sense of achievement, opposition to the settlement slowly grew, from expected and unexpected quarters until, in February 2011, the judge in the case finally rejected it. Despite its defeat, the maelstrom it put into motion was productive, and one such product was the “academic author.”
Speaking for the “author class,” the Authors Guild had sought to represent the book authors Google had harmed. According to its website, the Authors Guild is “the nation’s oldest and largest professional organization for writers,” and it understands an “author” to be a commercially motivated writer. According to its membership requirements, one must earn writing income “of at least $5,000 in an 18-month period,” and have book contracts that “include a royalty clause with a meaningful advance.” In fashioning a settlement in the Google Books dispute, the Author Guild’s foremost goal was to seek forms of compensation from Google as well as mechanisms for controlling the company’s use of authors’ books. In sum, the “author” of the Authors Guild is an author primarily concerned with the economic exploitation, and legal protection of, his or her copyright.
Perhaps, however, a book author has concerns other than those of the 8,000 or so members in the Authors Guild. A group of academics, primarily from the University of California system, started from that assumption. They wrote letters and testified against the Google Book Search Settlement, arguing that the Authors Guild had failed to represent the interests of “academic authors,” and in fact could not represent such authors because they had different motivations, interests, and reasons for being authors in the first place. Moreover, pointing out what should be obvious, scholars had written the majority of books in research libraries (where Google got its books to digitize) so that, in this case, their concerns were not marginal but central.
Behind their assertions lay the as-yet unspoken need for a new author advocacy group: an Authors Guild for academic authors. What would a settlement with Google have looked like if academic authors had been at the negotiating table, representing themselves, in addition to and alongside the Authors Guild? Would there have been provisions for greater public access? For making the more books available with Creative Commons licenses? For accelerating the entry of older books into the public domain? For text-mining research, for reader privacy, annotation features, library user rights, and sustainable pricing?
Earlier this year, this advocacy effort took concrete, organizational form when a new non-profit called the Authors Alliance officially launched. Spearheaded by the same academic authors who spoke against the Google settlement, the Alliance’s stated mission is “to promote authorship for the public good by supporting authors who write to be read” (emphasis mine). Certainly Authors Guild members, too, must believe themselves to be writing so as to be read, but, in the Alliance’s usage, the meaning of the phrase “write to be read” is meant to draw an distinction between writing to earn money (that is, to exploit a copyright) and writing otherwise (that is, “to be read”).
The appearance of the Authors Alliance—with its interest in advocating for authorship in the public interest and with its description of academic authors as writing “to be read”—invites our reflection. Do we write to be read? And what would it mean to each of us, individually, if we did?
There are many reasons that we find ourselves at the keyboard writing. We write to be published. We write to get a job (or, less, a job interview). We write to beef up our resumes. We write to get promoted. We write because we have something we want to say. We write so that people know we are working. We write because we are fulfilling a funder’s request for “deliverables.” We write to change the terms of a debate. We write to gain prestige. We write to increase our salary. We write because an editor or colleague cajoled us into doing so. We write to elevate our status. We write to stay in the game. We write because we did valuable research and it needs to be recorded. We write because we know stuff. And so on.
But do we write to be read? Perhaps, to some, it’s too simple a question, but I find it both complex and provocative. What difference would it make to our work, to our profession, to the institutions we inhabit, if we proceeded under that self-understanding? Indeed, how should we understand the phrase?
Whether or not you join the Authors Alliance—which, by the way, costs a mere $25—it’s worth a pause to reflect on what it would mean, to you, to “write to be read” and then to see what difference it makes—or not—to whatever you do next.