I very slightly know Maria Pallante, the new head of the Association of American Publishers. We go back to the 1990s when she was ably representing the National Writers Union as its executive director—she has always been a passionate advocate for writers, artists, and other creators.
That same well-intentioned zeal, however, sometimes caused her to be too much of a copyright hawk when she headed the U.S. Copyright Office. What’s more, she rubbed Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden the wrong way in seeking to sever the Copyright Office from LoC. The upshot was Maria Pallante’s departure. I’d side with Dr. Hayden; both the public and creators benefit when the copyright and library functions are integrated. This will matter even more as the number of copyrighted items keeps mushrooming, especially in the era of networked books and networked everything else.
Regardless of the above, I’m delighted that Pallante is now CEO and President of AAP. I wish her all kinds of luck there. Unlike many writers, I see a place for publishers even if the two groups will forever be at odds over slices of the pie. The best houses contribute value in the form of superior editing and marketing. Not every book lends itself to self-publication. And many writers would rather focus on their actual writings, as opposed to all the entrepreneurial efforts needed to turn a DIY book into a bestseller, assuming it’s even possible, which normally it isn’t. I am cheering for the deaths of publishers. Not! A healthy AAP under Maria Pallante could help.
Beyond that, Maria almost surely is far more knowledgeable about ebooks than was her predecessor. Guess who has subscribed to an ebook-related group on at least one social network?
As I see it, she faces two major challenges:
Challenge One: Growing the currently dwarf-sized market for books read for entertainment
First, Maria needs to acknowledge how dreadfully the book industry has performed as a business. The average American household spends a pittance on recreational reading, according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That pales before the several thousand lavished on other forms of entertainment. The AAP should care about copyright infringement, of course, but it’s just a subset of the main problem: people just aren’t spending as much on books as they did decades before, what with Netflix, video games, and other choices. Industry employment trends reflect this.
No one can bring back the glory days. But the AAP and the rest of the industry can help by stepping up efforts in areas such as partnerships with schools and libraries (yes, the First Book initiative is terrific). In that vein, I’d love to see the AAP work toward the establishment of a national digital library endowment to help grow the universe of readers. While we can’t resurrect all the closed bookstores, we can look ahead to the future. Too many ebooks still sell for as much as or even more than hardback editions, in hopes of propping up the old infrastructure; and I’m hardly surprised that ebook sales have plummeted. I know. Certain costs are fixed, such as for author advances or editing, but major publishers still have overdone it. If nothing else, reasonably priced books will mean less piracy.
Meanwhile I hope that AAP will rethink Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which bans even noninfringing circumvention of digital rights management. See Chris Meadows’s arguments against 1201, as well as a recent book, The End of Ownership. DRM, regardless of opinions to the contrary, can get in the way of consumers and cost sales. I can’t envision AAP encouraging publishers to drop all anti-piracy measures, but ideally the group will promote digital watermarking as an alternative and also understand the need for elimination of the anti-circumvention clause of the DMCA when no infringement happens.
The issue is consumer choice. Amazon and friends have many positives, but, when it comes to technical matter, such as typographical options, they have shortchanged booklovers. It took years of pleas from TeleRead and others before Amazon included all-text bold—useful to millions of Americans with contrast-sensitivity issues—as an feature in Kindle devices. Decent text to speech for the nonblind is still missing from all recent Kindles. Amazon can more easily flout customers’ wishes because proprietary DRM locks people into its apps and hardware. Americans cannot legally cannot break DRM even to perform file conversions. Oh, how much better books can read in Moon+ Reader Pro than in the pathetic Kindle app! While novices may prefer the Kindle app, many of the heaviest readers don’t—the very ones who buy more than their share of books.
In the long run, even Amazon would be better off with more consumer choice since books would be more attractive as purchases. With watermarking, unlike DRM, conversions from Kindle formats to others could still happen without breaking the DMCA. Of course, the law is already a laughingstock. Other ebook sites, not TeleRead, openly tells how to break DRM, and one TeleRead commenter, Barry Marks, says even Amazon employees have admitted to him that they circumvent it. Their word to him is, Just go ahead. The AAP should recognize the need to bring the law more in line with human behavior while retaining penalties for genuine infringement. 1201 is to ebooks what Prohibition was to alcohol.
Challenge Two: Donald Trump
Donald Trump could care less about books without his name on the cover. We’ve more or less elected a nonreader-in-chief.
But Trump still can read well enough to take umbrage at less-than-flattering biographies and news articles and threaten their authors. He hates writers and journalists in general and will press for loosened libel laws to make it easier to sue them. The AAP needs to be proactive and take a stand against intimidation and for writers’ access to government officials and documents. Count on Trump seeking at some point to weaken the Freedom of Information Act, given the historical hostility of politicians of his ilk toward access.
Along the way, the AAP should be very careful when it aims for changes in copyright laws, lest it find itself beholden to foes of the First Amendment, either in the White House or on Capitol Hill. Trump’s press conference this week, as shown by the confrontation in the video below, confirms the worst of my fears that journalists and authors will not enjoy life under the Trump Administration and its friends on Capitol Hill. Trump flunkies applauded during the press conference while the real reporters remained silent. This showmanship was in the spirit of his hero, Russian Federation President Vladmir Putin, under whom more than a few journalists have died suspiciously. Hollywood logically distrusts an authoritarian like Trump. Publishing needs to do the same. Don’t pander to him.
Freedom of expression isn’t the only issue with a bully like Trump about to take over the Oval Office. If nothing else, don’t be surprised if the Institute of Museum and Library Services fades away, just as House Speaker Paul Ryan wanted it to. I hope that Maria Pallante, her AAP colleagues, and others will joining librarians in fighting for the survival of IMLS.
Oh, and then there’s the pesky issue of Trump’s know-nothing policy toward China. I’m said it before—free trade agreements have shafted millions of American workers, without adequate protection for them. But done well, free trade is good for us, especially U.S. writers, publishers, and film makers. The AAP can hardly expect the Chinese to keep buying U.S. books and other content, and improve copyright protection, if The Orange One gets us into a trade war.
Simply put, while Maria Pallante’s main expertise is in copyright law, I hope she will not focus on that to the exclusion of other matters ranging from market development to the promotion of better ebook technology than we have at the moment.
Related: The Digital Reader‘s warning to AAP not to diss the Internet. The group’s letter to Trump said: “While the Internet and smartphones have added texting, tweeting, emailing, instant messaging, social networking, and blogging to the ways individuals communicate privately with a few or publicly with a crowd, publishing an original work remains a compelling way to tell a story, explain any subject, offer a viewpoint, or spread facts and ideas.” So the Net doesn’t teem with original content, including perhaps some picked up by famous book writers without due attribution? I’d have used a less truculent tone than Nate Hoffelder did in the Digital Reader, but, yes, the AAP needs to get with the times. Here’s a chance for Maria Pallante to make her mark in a positive way.