Writing to be Read

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(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.

 

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I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

4 thoughts on “Writing to be Read

  1. Indeed a very good question! As a graduate student it sometimes feels like one either writes to be read, or writes to get a good mark, but not necessarily both. When I did my first research project I decided I wanted to write it on a way that my informants could actually understand, which led to a different style of writing than purely academic. One of my markers didn’t like the style and said so, but the other marker was more flexible, which allowed me to get a good mark. The best comment I got was from someone who read the dissertation and told me it made them cry, which for me was the highest praise (ie, someone was actually impacted by the research!). It also was put on a website of a well known organisation and blog linked by a number of advocates. I think it’s been read by nearly 100 people by
    Now (maybe more). In other words it’s out there in the world, impacting people and being used, that’s the point of research, is it not? Just my two cents worth (from the academic cheap seats down in Master’s thesis land).

  2. Writing to be read unpacks a number of personal matters to anthropologists, but I find it to be a pressing need within our literature. Although the focus of this post was to illustrate the difference between “writing to be read” and writing to exploit a copyright situation, there is also the underlying issue of writing in a way that can be read. As a graduate student, I know that technical writing is a touchy subject within the field of anthropology. Should we write to enhance our credibility as social scientists? Or should we write for a broader audience? All too often I read research that is not easily digestible, even as an aspiring scholar in the field. The point is, we should write to be read, but in a way that increases our visibility in the sphere of the sciences and the world beyond. Copyright issues or not, open access is a growing concern, but one that should be thoroughly explored. The concept of authorship has obviously changed on the virtual frontier. As authors, we have the power to share our knowledge, isn’t that why information is published?

  3. For a slightly different perspective, we might also consider a distinction drawn by Larry Brouhard, a successful entrepreneur in the field of translating technical documentation from Japanese to English. Larry began his talk to a meeting of the Society of Writers, Editors and Translators by noting the difference between “Writers,” who write something that they hope will be published, and “Those who write for a living,” people like himself who only write when they are confident of being paid for what they write and of how much they will be paid. From this perspective, both academic and trade press authors are writers, people who write and hope to see what they write published. The difference between them used to be that academic authors had secure incomes from their teaching or research positions, while those aspiring to write the next Great American Novel or publish poetry, were either starving artists in garrets or independently wealthy. Now, with the economic collapse of academia and the growing number of young academics forced to scrape by as adjuncts, this difference between academic and other authors is collapsing.

    That said, those who worry about the rights of academic authors are, with one exception, the authors of highly successful textbooks that sell hundreds of thousands of copies, engaged in a battle in which most of those they represent have little economic stake. It has been several years since I read in The Chronicle of Higher Education that average sales of monographs in the social sciences and humanities were around seven hundred copies. My own book, Japanese Consumer Behavior: From Worker Bees to Wary Shoppers, has done a bit better than that, selling around four thousand copies so far. My royalties so far amount to at most a couple of thousand dollars. If that were the only reward for five years work, I leave the conclusion to you.

    But the fact is that for someone who publishes academic work and doesn’t write highly successful textbooks or, let’s add another category, one of the occasional best sellers by the likes of Jared Diamond, the value does not lie in what you are paid directly for the work. The value lies in being read and acquiring a reputation that gets you more or better paying work. From this perspective, if Google wants to digitize my book and make it available to more readers, and the price to me is a small and now rapidly diminishing stream of royalties —more power to Google, I say.

  4. This is an intriguing post and an aspect of the Google situation I was entirely unfamiliar with. Thank you!

    Your blog and the comments omitted one motivation for writing that drives both my academic and literary careers. Whether I am sharing the results of an elegant research study or penning my memoir, the drive to put words on the page is healing, both for me and my readers. I come to understand the world through writing (and reading) about it.

    Thirty years ago I entered the world of academe and promised myself I would try to always make my publications relevant and helpful–having been a clinician for a decade before I earned my PhD, it seemed like scholarly literature often missed the target with improving life in ways small or big for the population being served.

    When my first commercial book, Surviving Ophelia, was published, it was an attempt to make meaning of a heartbreaking experience both I and my eventual readers had lived through–and it worked. The books that followed, including a YA fiction series, were intended to offer healing, combining both my clinical/academic expertise with my ability to create engaging narrative.

    I’d be interested to know if others have found this to be part of their writing process. It’s taken many years before the insight dawned for me.

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