Monday, 15 April 2013

Those Pesky Academics... (like me, for example)

Scott Turow's been making public statements again! That should keep me in blog topics for a while...

Actually, Techdirt, David Gaughran, Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath have done a pretty good job of responding to Turow's latest steaming pile of paranoid, vitriolic logorrheia. However, they've all missed out one particular paragraph, which was the one that really made my blood boil.

It's this one:
"The fracas with the Hathi libraries is emblematic of new fractures in traditional literary alliances. For many academics today, their own copyrights hold little financial value because scholarly publishing has grown so unprofitable. The copyrights of other authors, by contrast, often inhibit scholars who want to quote freely from those works or use portions in class. Thus, under the cri de coeur that “information wants to be free,” some professors and others are calling for copyright to be curtailed or even abandoned. High-minded slogans aside, these academics are simply promoting their own careers over the livelihoods of other writers."
Three out of five of these sentences are problematic (by which I mean 'misguided, misleading and in some cases outright hateful'). To whit:

The statement that academic copyrights hold little financial value for academics - this is certainly true, but not because scholarly publishing has become unprofitable. With a new academic monograph tending to go for something like £50 (yes, you read that right - and don't expect them to come much below £20 in paperback), you can bet someone is making money off these things. It's not the authors - most likely it's the desperately-struggling academic presses, who have the most to gain from switching to the lower-overhead business models of the new digital publishing but, being part of the entrenched university system, are perhaps even more resistant to change than the big six.

The claim that copyrights 'often inhibit scholars who want to quote freely from those works or use portions in class' is just flat-out false. There are extensive, well-defined and generous protections for fair use. The only prohibition is about providing photocopies of a copyrighted text to students, where the limit is generally no more than one chapter per book - and I've only once encountered a situation where this was a problem, in eight years of university life.

The one that really got the steam coming out of my ears, though, was the last sentence. Mr. Turow is accusing those of us who oppose the modern copyright framework of doing so purely for self-aggrandisement. Did you notice the strong implication that this is a deliberate attack on other authors? I guess to Turow it looks like that, since his world apparently revolves around the Author's Guild and its 8,000-odd members, who are probably the authors with most to gain from copyright as an institution.

First off, the accusation is very patently untrue. The arguments I, and many others more eloquent and forceful than myself, have offered are much deeper and more thorough than 'high-minded slogans', and are the product of conviction, not cynicism. The problem goes far deeper than that, though - after all, why is Turow laying into academics?

It's clear he's desperately searching for villains to fit his narrative of 'real authors' versus 'the new publishing'. In the rest of the article, he attacks libraries, Amazon, Google, and the Supreme Court of the United States of America, for crying out loud. Why is it to his rhetorical advantage to add a group as cuddly and harmless as academics to that list?

Because 'academic' is a poweful, loaded label. It still conjures up images of stout, bearded old men cloistered in luxurious, book-filled offices, growing fat on their tenured professorial chairs. People don't really seem to know what 'academics' do - outwardly, I think, it all seems to be caps, gowns and very little heavy lifting.

Well, I am an academic (or at least a very-late-stage-trainee). I can assure you that this picture of academic life is an anachronism, a vision constructed in the late 19th or possibly early 20th century. The most painful inaccuracy is encapsulated by this description of the working conditions of the average US academic.

Okay, it's not sweat-shop stuff, but while the pay is better per hour than behind the counter at McDonalds (far fewer hours are available), the insecurity, stress and oppression are much the same. And these adjunct professors are the best and brightest minds of their generation, the Einsteins of tomorrow, the people who lead the fight against the most profound challenges of our time - global warming, overpopulation, peak food and water, and so on.

And yet, academics get to bear the brunt of a campaign of marginalisation by the political right (you've heard the cries about 'the intellectual elite', I'm sure), which is exactly what Turow is playing on here. Academics are no threat to Scott Turow, to Author's Guild members, or even to authors in general - in fact, it's spurious to treat academics as if we're not authors. We're authors in greater need of some unionisation than most, since the legacy publishing model works least well in small niche markets and ours is the most niche of nichey niches.

Turow's looking for enemies to demonise because he doesn't want anyone identifying the real problems in publishing. I have a couple of theories about the identity of those problems, but they'll have to wait for another time - expect painful reading. Until then, just remember that... well, just remember Scott Turow's an idiot. It's not just academics he's wrong about.

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