The Authors Alliance
A new player has trotted onto the field of scholarly communications advocacy, and is getting a mixed reception from the crowd and from other players before it has even picked up the ball.
The new group’s name is the Authors Alliance, and its stated mission is as follows:
The mission of Authors Alliance is to further the public interest in facilitating widespread access to works of authorship by assisting and representing authors who want to disseminate knowledge and products of the imagination broadly. We provide information and tools designed to help authors better understand and manage key legal, technological, and institutional aspects of authorship in the digital age. We are also a voice for authors in discussions about public and institutional policies that might promote or inhibit the broad dissemination they seek.
(N.B. – The Authors Alliance should not be confused with the Author Alliance, an organization that provides promotional and editorial support to aspiring and professional writers.)
The Authors Alliance is based—in fact if not by declaration—at the University of California, Berkeley, and more particularly in its School of Law: the Alliance’s Board of Directors consists of Pamela Samuelson (Professor of Law and Information); Molly van Houweling (Professor of Law, also on the Board of Directors of Creative Commons); Tom Leonard (University Librarian); and Carla Hesse (Professor of History and Dean of Social Sciences). Its 24-member Advisory Board includes famous and respected library leaders (Paul Courant, Robert Darnton), authors (Jonathan Lethem, Cory Doctorow), a Poet Laureate (Robert Pinsky), scientists, journalists, academics, and others.
In its statement of purpose, the Alliance declares its embrace of “the unprecedented potential that digital networks have for the creation and distribution of knowledge and culture” and says that it exists to “represent the interests of authors who want to harness this potential to share their creations more broadly in order to serve the public good.” The statement identifies two broad classes of problem for authors who wish to have their work maximally disseminated: problems having to do with previously-published creations (which may be out of print, undigitized, or subject to restrictive agreements) and those having to do with current and future creations (in regard to which tensions arise between the desire for broad readership and the desire for value-adds that can only be provided at various kinds of cost, costs which tend to lead to access restriction). Apparently recognizing, though tacitly, that not every author is primarily concerned with maximal dissemination, the Alliance explicitly offers its services mainly to those authors for whom broad dissemination is key.
Membership in the Alliance is free, though donations are encouraged. No specific membership benefits are outlined at the website; the Alliance is a 501(c)(3) organization, so donations are tax-deductible in the US.
The Alliance identifies four broad areas of endeavor: Managing Authors’ Rights; Authorship Law and Policy; Reaching Audiences; and Authorial Reputation and Integrity. The last of these is the one that engages most directly with what I think has been the most difficult sticking point for scholarly authors, a great many of whom have traditionally been far more concerned with establishing markers of quality than with maximizing readership: given that quality has traditionally been assessed (and quality markers then applied) by publishers in return for some degree of exclusive sales rights, how can a scholar—especially a young one who either is or aspires to be on the tenure track—continue to work within a system that relies on those markers and yet still get her work out to as many readers as possible? One option, of course, is to change that system – and the Alliance’s discussion of this topic hints strongly that this is exactly its agenda: “Issues of reputation and integrity are connected to the processes of peer review and promotion – processes that are critical to the research and academic enterprises but that may need to adapt in the digital age” (emphasis mine).
That phrase – may need to adapt – is likely to strike a certain note of fear into any member of the scholarly communication system whose business model is built on that system’s traditional assumptions. And this brings us to the Authors Guild, whose reaction to the Alliance’s announcement was swift and sharp.
Authors Guild Reaction
Shortly after the Alliance announced itself, the Authors Guild posted to its website a letter written by Board of Directors member T.J. Stiles to the San Francisco Writers Grotto. In it he minced no words: “If you think authors should be the ones to decide what is done with their books, then I strongly urge you not to join,” he said. “However, if you are an academic, or scorn the idea of making a living from writing as a quest for ‘fame and fortune,’ the Authors Alliance may be the organization for you.”
That’s from the letter’s third paragraph, and it does not become gentler as it progresses. While allowing that “it may be too early to identify official Authors Alliance positions,” Stiles proceeds pretty much to do so anyway, laying out a list of ideas that “its directors and advisory board members have pushed,” including “allowing libraries to digitally copy your books, even if you have an e-edition for sale,” “allowing people to resell digital files the way they can resell used physical books,” and—this one struck me as rather strange—”requiring proper attribution of others’ works.” (Perhaps anticipating puzzlement with his objection to this requirement, Stiles amplifies, though not very helpfully: “This reasonable-sounding proposal sounds all kinds of alarms. Who will judge our books? What will be the penalties?”)
Stiles then argues that the goals of the Alliance “align perfectly with (the)… financial and professional interests” of its board members, provides links to information about the board members’ salaries, and closes by warning that “the intellectual-property shop at Berkeley’s law school has a very aggressive and expansive agenda that was crafted without working authors in mind. They want you to join so they can say you are one of a large group that supports that entire agenda.” Stiles further asserts that the Alliance “exists to make it appear that there is a grassroots authors’ organization in favor of loosening copyright protections and limiting remedies for copyright infringement.” All of this may well be true—again, half of the group’s top leadership is from Cal’s law school, and Stiles’ characterization of its orientation to intellectual property issues is not exactly unfair—but it’s always a good idea to reserve judgement when being warned about the unspoken agendas and underlying motivations of others. (On the other hand, having shared virtually no specifics about its intended program, the Alliance can hardly expect those who might be in its vaguely-defined crosshairs to refrain from speculation.)
Sound? Check. Fury? Check. Significance? Possibly.
To some degree, this conflict strikes me as a lot of sound and fury without much significance. The Alliance has very explicitly set itself up as an organization in support of authors who are primarily concerned with the broadest possible sharing of their work and with new approaches to rights management and to the signaling of scholarly quality. Its natural constituency is academic writers who make their living primarily through salaried work (which includes writing for publication) and who benefit more from building their brands than from selling their copyrights. The Guild, on the other hand, is, as its name suggests, a trade organization that exists to help its members make a living as professional writers—a mission that implies a much greater dependence on traditional publishing, and thus a greater investment in the publishing system that currently exists. The Alliance and the Guild are operating in spheres that have always been substantially separate from each other, and while there is some degree of overlap and there can be real tensions between their constituencies at the level of public policy, there’s no reason why the Guild shouldn’t be able to advocate in its sphere without having to butt heads too often with the Alliance in its own.
At another level, though, I think this kerfuffle suggests something more troubling.
Again, there’s no question that professional writers such as journalists, freelance editors, and novelists operate in a very different employment marketplace from that of academics. Issues around copyright, dissemination, and formal publication mean something very different to a novelist or journalist than they do to a salaried academic writer. While writing for publication is an essential part of an academic’s job, it would not really be accurate to say that most academics “write for a living.” Academics will not typically lose their livelihoods if Elsevier, Wiley, and Nature all go out of business. Journalists, on the other hand, will indeed lose their livelihoods if Hearst and Gannett go out of business. This is something we should all bear in mind when academics talk about the evils of commercial publishing.
But in the real world, the conflict is not between the poles of the professional writing experience, between the freelance editors and newspaper stringers on the one hand and tenured English professors on the other. The conflict is in the middle, where independent scholars depend on the structure of traditional book publishing in order to make their living, where adjuncts who aspire to the tenure track depend on access to traditional peer-reviewed journal systems, and where tenure-track junior faculty depend on those same systems in order to secure their careers. I wonder if these academic writers feel as if anyone speaks for them. It seems pretty clear that the Alliance is interested in them only to the degree that they want to change the system (which some may, and some may not). The Guild is interested in keeping the old system in place (because a new system is very unlikely to provide stronger protections to authors and publishers than the old one did), but the old system is hardly the unambiguous friend of the new and unpublished academic.
I also find it interesting to compare the tone employed by representatives of the Guild and the Alliance. The Alliance’s message is a gentle invitation, extended to anyone who might be interested and pronouncing no negative judgement (well, not explicitly, anyway) on those who are not. The Guild’s message, on the other hand, is a strident warning not to go in there. Stiles’ letter fairly shrieks that message, attributing dark and nefarious motives to the Alliance directors on the basis of their associations and outside endeavors; by contrast, the Alliance’s Pamela Samuelson (in an interview with Publishers Weekly) offers a much more balanced and temperate assessment of the Guild and even expresses a desire to cooperate with that group where appropriate. Tone is not always a reliable indicator of content or intention, of course. But it can be suggestive.
Some Unanswered Questions
Many, many questions remain unanswered at this point. They include:
- The Alliance seems to have accurately identified the necessary locus of change in the scholarly communication system: if it happens, it will originate with the authors who provide all of its nourishment—either because they choose change or are coerced into it. But given that the Alliance is in no position to coerce and does not seem inclined to do so anyway, what specific enticements will it offer authors to join up?
- Given that mass (and effectively cost-free) dissemination is already easily available to any author who wishes it, what problem does the Alliance see itself solving for authors who want maximal dissemination for their current and future writings?
- Will the Alliance and the Guild be able to find common ground, or will the Guild set itself up actively as an opponent to the Alliance? If so, what impact (if any) will this have on authors in the real world?
- The Alliance has clearly defined its interests and (in rather vague terms) its agenda. But what is the Alliance going to do, exactly? At this point, joining the Alliance appears to be simply a matter of entering one’s email address in an online form. The applicant is invited, but not required, to donate money, and is invited (on an opt-in basis) to receive updates via email and to allow his or her name and membership status to be publicly displayed—but beyond that no meaningful definition of “membership” is provided. Right now, “joining the Alliance” seems to amount to little more than signing a kind of online petition.
One has to wonder whether, to some degree, the formation of the Alliance is primarily intended as a warning shot across the bow of Big Publishing. If so, at this point it seems mainly to have gotten the attention of an organization whose membership is, at best, only peripherally implicated in the goals of the Alliance—though it’s difficult to say for sure, given the vagueness with which those goals have been defined so far. It will be very interesting to see what develops next.