Chip MacGregor

December 13, 2013

An Open Letter to my Fellow Authors (a guest blog from novelist Richard Russo)


It’s all changing, right before our eyes. Not just publishing, but the writing life itself, our ability to make a living from authorship. Even in the best of times, which these are not, most writers have to supplement their writing incomes by teaching, or throwing up sheet-rock, or cage fighting. It wasn’t always so, but for the last two decades I’ve lived the life most writers dream of: I write novels and stories, as well as the occasional screenplay, and every now and then I hit the road for a week or two and give talks. In short, I’m one of the blessed, and not just in terms of my occupation. My health is good, my children grown, their educations paid for. I’m sixty-four, which sucks, but it also means that nothing that happens in publishing—for good or ill—is going to affect me nearly as much as it affects younger writers, especially those who haven’t made their names yet. Even if the e-price of my next novel is $1.99, I won’t have to go back to cage fighting.
Still, if it turns out that I’ve enjoyed the best the writing life has to offer, that those who follow, even the most brilliant, will have to settle for less, that won’t make me happy and I suspect it won’t cheer other writers who’ve been as fortunate as I. It’s these writers, in particular, that I’m addressing here. Not everyone believes, as I do, that the writing life is endangered by the downward pressure of e-book pricing, by the relentless, ongoing erosion of copyright protection, by the scorched-earth capitalism of companies like Google and Amazon, by spineless publishers who won’t stand up to them, by the “information wants to be free” crowd who believe that art should be cheap or free and treated as a commodity, by internet search engines who are all too happy to direct people to on-line sites that sell pirated (read “stolen”) books, and even by militant librarians who see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to “lend” our e-books without restriction. But those of us who are alarmed by these trends have a duty, I think, to defend and protect the writing life that’s been good to us, not just on behalf of younger writers who will not have our advantages if we don’t, but also on behalf of readers, whose imaginative lives will be diminished if authorship becomes untenable as a profession.I know, I know. Some insist that there’s never been a better time to be an author. Self-publishing has democratized the process, they argue, and authors can now earn royalties of up to seventy percent, where once we had to settle for what traditional publishers told us was our share. Anecdotal evidence is marshaled in support of this view (statistical evidence to follow). Those of us who are alarmed, we’re told, are, well, alarmists. Time will tell who’s right, but surely it can’t be a good idea for writers to stand on the sidelines while our collective fate is decided by others. Especially when we consider who those others are. Entities like Google and Apple and Amazon are rich and powerful enough to influence governments, and every day they demonstrate their willingness to wield that enormous power. Books and authors are a tiny but not insignificant part of the larger battle being waged between these companies, a battleground that includes the movie, music, and newspaper industries. I think it’s fair to say that to a greater or lesser degree, those other industries have all gotten their asses kicked, just as we’re getting ours kicked now. And not just in the courts. Somehow, we’re even losing the war for hearts and minds. When we defend copyright, we’re seen as greedy. When we justly sue, we’re seen as litigious. When we attempt to defend the physical book and stores that sell them, we’re seen as Luddites. Our altruism, when we’re able to summon it, is too often seen as self-serving.But here’s the thing. What the Apples and Googles and Amazons and Netflixes of the world all have in common (in addition to their quest for world domination), is that they’re all starved for content, and for that they need us. Which means we have a say in all this. Everything in the digital age may feel new and may seem to operate under new rules, but the conversation about the relationship between art and commerce is age-old, and artists must be part of it. To that end we’d do well to speak with one voice, though it’s here we demonstrate our greatest weakness. Writers are notoriously independent cusses, hard to wrangle. We spend our mostly solitary days filling up blank pieces of paper with words. We must like it that way, or we wouldn’t do it. But while it’s pretty to think that our odd way of life will endure, there’s no guarantee. The writing life is ours to defend. Protecting it also happens to be the mission of the Authors Guild, which I myself did not join until last year, when the light switch in my cave finally got tripped. Are you a member? If not, please consider becoming one. We’re badly outgunned and in need of reinforcements. If the writing life has done well by you, as it has by me, here’s your chance to return the favor. Do it now, because there’s such a thing as being too late.

Richard Russo
December 2013

Richard Russo is the author of numerous novels, including Straight Man and Elsewhere, and won the Pulitzer Prize for his fabulous novel Empire Falls. This letter was forwarded to me by novelist Scott Turow, president of The Authors Guild, in order to build support for the Guild.  We at MacGregor Literary believe in the role, goals, and objectives of The Author’s Guild, and we are proud to be a member. We encourage all authors to consider the benefits of the Guild. You can find more information and a membership application at or Tell them Chip MacGregor sent you!
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  • Ted says:

    Pretty much every argument Russo makes is taken apart in this reponse:

    • Shaun Ryan says:

      Thanks for posting that. Much food for thought there. Still got a lot of links to click and a lot of reading to do, but I’m glad to hear both sides of an argument, and have to say that they make some very good points.

      I still believe that books (stories) are not a luxury but a necessity to the human race. They haven’t been around since before the written word simply to entertain, and they’ve never been free. Oral tales passed down by elders or shamans or traveling bards were paid for with room and board and other necessaries, whether provided by individuals or communities in a collective effort. Stories shouldn’t start being free now because they’re easy to access and are abundant. But, call me a curmudgeon, I acknowledge that it’s probably better to sell more books at $1.99 than a few at a higher price. That’s part of learning the business end of this gig and that’s fine.

      And yeah, sifting through the mountain of garbage is on me, not Amazon or anyone else. I guess what pisses me off is the Wal-Mart mentality Chip mentioned recently. I’m a get-what-you-pay-for guy, not a cheap and disposable guy. So that’s the heart of it right there for me; stories shouldn’t be disposable, they should be–and, when the author hones their craft and has something to say and manages to make both resonate with readers, are–irreplaceable.

      Anyway, These guys are probably right about much of this and my reactionary response to Russo’s letter is probably just that. He struck more than one nerve. One thing though; like any partisan view, things are being overlooked or glossed over on both sides. First, my above statement about stories and their intrinsic value; one side here is making a holy grail of books and the other is reducing them to cartoons. An oversimplification, sure, but it makes the point. The true value of books lies somewhere in between, and how much someone is willing to pay is largely irrelevant to that.

      Second, Joe and Barry state that they aren’t arguing that Amazon and Google and Apple don’t need competition. But despite “all they’ve done to empower writers,” I have to question the unspoken assumption that these companies will continue to be the champions of free thought and democratic content availability they and others assure us they are now. History says otherwise. So don’t be surprised if and when these CORPORATIONS, once they have no real competition in the book market, decide to pay smaller royalties, charge more for the content, and start being more selective (read fad-pandering) about how content is presented if not whether it is presented at all. Don’t fool yourself for a moment into believing that they won’t be happy to step into the role of publishing tyrant the traditional houses are being cast in now.

      Lastly, I give you the only ludicrous statement in this informative and entertaining (got a lot of chuckles, guys, and can dig your style and definitely your passion) article:

      But for the majority of writers, that attitude is like mourning British rule in the post-revolution United States. “Ah, remember the good old days when we had the hell taxed out of us but had no representation in government?”

      Dudes, where the hell have you been? Those good old days are alive and well, so that analogy has me questioning you more than I otherwise might. And that’s a good thing, because it means I’ll be reading more of your blog.


  • Lucian K. Truscott IV says:

    The writing life as Richard and I knew it is over. What will replace it is up to us, and it’s up to those of you who follow. I hope you stand up for the notion that you should get paid good money for the “content” you provide to content purveyors. Orwell is rolling over in his grave

  • Annabel Lee says:

    I am lucky enough to make my living as a writer. That said, the current situation is really difficult. I must write twice as much–more really–for a fraction of what I made a decade ago. Publishers are shifting more and more responsibilities–for photography, for marketing, etc.–to writers, advances have declined by an enormous percentage, expenses continue to rise and the marketplace is much more competitive than it once was, with many people eager and willing to write for free. Cage fighting? I hope it is not in my future but I’m not as lucky as Richard Russo; I must work to live.

  • P. M. Steffen says:

    Price and quality are separate properties of a book. I’ve downloaded numerous Dickens and Hardy ebooks for free in the last week — does that mean they suck? No. I bought the ebook version of The Goldfinch for $1.79 last week. Every ebook gives you access to the first pages for free, no need to buy something you don’t like. Check out the Konrath/Eisler conversation re: the Russo/Turow/Authors Guild fiasco for a logical and informed response:

  • David Todd says:


    I assume, as evidenced by your re-posting this, that you are in agreement with Russo’s sentiments. Therefore, what recommendations do you have for us?

  • Sam Hall says:

    When I read Empire Falls, I knew I was in the presence of a great talent. Richard Russo applies that talent to a call to arms, if you will, to the writing community. Even if you don’t agree with his concerns, this is a great read. Thanks, Chip, for passing it along.

  • Donna Volkenannt says:

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I shared a link to this post on my Facebook page.

  • Laura Droege says:

    I agree with this post, and I appreciate authors like Richard who want to fight the “art=commodity” attitude, etc. I wish I was eligible to join the Author’s Guild, but I’m not. Are there any ways that unpublished, not-under-contract, never-made-any-money-from-writing writers can help fight these changes?

  • Robin Patchen says:

    I’d never heard of the Author’s Guild, but I’m headed there now.

    I think the reading public is suffering because of all these changes. There are so many books in the marketplace, but many of them aren’t worth their 99 cent price tags. How’s a consumer to know what’s good and what isn’t? I know I’ve wasted a lot of money, 99 cents at a time, on drivel.

    • Cyd Madsen says:

      Robin, one way of dealing with those 99 cent stinkers is to return them. I do it all the time. I’ve also put a new rule in place that two line copy errors and it’s an immediate return, even if the book is relatively well written. I’m for the Guild and will join, but until that pressure becomes significant, returning books is one way of letting Amazon know we won’t put up with work that degrades all of us.

    • Robin Patchen says:

      I’m somewhat embarrassed to say it never occurred to me to return them. Good idea! Why should I pay for something low-quality?

    • Shaun Ryan says:

      That’s the question, isn’t it? And it applies to much more than books. Yet people keep buying crap, by the boatload. They eat it, drink it, watch it, wear it, and drive it instead of saying no.

  • Shaun Ryan says:

    I agree with Richard. I am not a huge fan of the devaluation of art, in any form, be it music or film or books. The result of years of devotion to craft and months–or more years–of drafting and revising and editing should not be available for free or even cheap. You want cheap, hit the Amazon list, where you can wade through a hundred-thousand volumes by folks who can barely put a coherent sentence together.

    I am not a huge fan of the cheap and easy mentality.

    Not a fan of fiction that has never come near a talented editor, or even a mediocre one, and shows it.

    And maybe I’m about to offend some folks, but I have to go with honesty, and the tender of sensibility can forgive or not.

    A-f’ing-men, Richard Russo. Big time.

  • Jeremy Myers says:

    I might consider joining the guild, but personally, I am a huge fan of the changes currently underway in the publishing industry.

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