More is more

In an essay for the New York Times Book Review, Geoff Nicholson notes that he has been called "prolific" for writing twenty books in twenty-two years, and he suspects that the adjective might be seen in some quarters as a slur.

He shouldn't let it get to him. A couple of decades ago, a psychologist named Dean Keith Simonton found a correlation between quantity and quality. In The Mating Mind (2000), Geoffrey Miller summarized Simonton's results thus:

Among competent professionals in any field, there appears to be a fairly constant probability of success in any given endeavor. Simonton's data show that excellent composers do not produce a higher proportion of excellent music than good composers—they simply produce a higher total number of works. People who achieve extreme success in any creative field are almost always extremely prolific.

If you subtract cases of early demise from tuberculosis, alcoholism, and mental illness, and handicap for poverty and/or day jobs, I bet the same would prove true of writers. Like the notion that genius is always youthful, the notion that it is always costive is myth.

It might also console Nicholson to recall that in an age when authors write blogs, only the prolific will manage to write books at all.

Moral rights vs. work-for-hire

Responding to my post about the Google Book Settlement, a commenter mentioned that he hadn’t claimed his translations because he had done them as work-for-hire, and it occurs to me that the way work-for-hire contracts will play out in the settlement is worth another few words.

In Britain and in Europe, authors own not only a copyright in their works but also moral rights to them. The idea of moral rights is an attempt to address the fact that works of art are not like, say, eggs or lumps of coal. The creator of a work of art cares about what happens to it, even after he’s sold the right to publish it or display it or even own it, in a way that a keeper of chickens does not care about the fate of eggs, or a miner about the fate of coal. Unlike monetary rights, the moral rights to a work of art cannot be transferred.

American law does not similarly protect the moral rights of its authors. In fact, it has a legal convention called “work-for-hire” that is to moral rights what peonage is to citizenship. If you sign a contract with a “work-for-hire” clause, you agree that what you’ve written is a thing without any more integrity than a lump of coal, and that the purchaser can do whatever he wants to it, editorially, without any need to consult you, and that no matter how much or under what circumstances the work is republished, you have no rights to demand further payment. In my opinion, work-for-hire contracts are disreputable acts of force majeure on the part of publishers. Nonetheless, it is almost impossible for a novice writer to avoid signing them, and in the last few years, it has been difficult even for established writers to avoid them. To its shame, the New York Times insists that its freelance writers, including book reviewers, sign work-for-hire contracts, and even The New Yorker insists that shorter pieces like Talk of the Town essays and capsule reviews be works for hire.

But do you really lose rights forever in work because you signed a work-for-hire clause? Let me offer two counterexamples. More than a decade ago, I translated three pieces of Czech fiction for Catbird Press, which were published in an anthology titled Daylight in Nightclub Inferno. I don’t remember whether my translation contract stipulated that it was work for hire; such terms are common with translations, alas, but the publisher of the press, Robert Wechsler, cared deeply about translation, so the contract might have been more generous. In any case, the book went out of print some years ago, and Catbird Press went out of business some time after that. As far as I know, the rights to the anthology were never sold to anyone before or after the press was shut down; certainly no new edition has appeared. So who owns the rights to my translations? Obviously the original authors own the rights to the underlying works of fiction. But the rights to the translations, I would argue, have reverted to me. Let me put it this way: no reputable publisher would try to reissue the book without negotiating some kind of arrangement with the authors and the translators, if they could be located. If they did, I would sic my agent on them in a New York minute. So I have placed a claim on the “inserts” in these books that correspond to my translations.

A second, perhaps more important example. I’ve published a number of short pieces of fiction over the years, but I’ve decided, in my own mind, that my work as a fiction writer officially begins with a novella that I published in the winter 2008 issue of the journal n+1. I’m not going to go from library to library ripping pages out of old journals and anthologies in order to erase my past, but I’ve nonetheless decided that the novella “Sweet Grafton” is opus 1, number 1, and that what came before should be quietly left behind to rot. Lately, though, I have begun to catch glimpses of earlier pieces of my fiction in the Google archive, digitized but not yet released to the public. I don’t care about the money Google might make and withhold from me; I don’t think there’s any serious money to be made. But I don’t want these pieces suddenly to become readily available. Did I sign away my control to these works, with work-for-hire contracts? Again, I don’t remember, and again, I’d argue that it doesn’t matter whether I did. Because even though American law doesn’t respect an author’s moral rights, the community of American publishing heretofore mostly has respected the most important among them. If Saul Bellow had mistakenly signed a work-for-hire contract on an early short story, would anyone have dared reprint it without his permission, or over his protests? No, they wouldn’t have, because by doing so, such a publisher would call down upon himself the opprobrium of not only Bellow but all other writers who are careful about their presentation of their work—which is to say, all other writers that any reputable publisher might want to sign up. Google isn’t part of that community, so it may not be subject to that kind of moral discouragement. And therefore I think this new settlement ought to allow authors to enforce some of their moral rights, whether or not the contract contained a work-for-hire clause. To get started as a writer, I was willing to write almost anything, sometimes under the most absurd terms, and Google is welcome to much of it without any interference from me. But what has my name on it, and took some of my artistry, even where the artistry didn’t succed, I want to retain at least a veto over.

Why not ask for more?

A couple of days ago, in a successful attempt to sabotage my own efforts to meet a deadline, I decided to look into the Google Book Settlement. The settlement is an agreement, hammered out last fall between Google and the Authors Guild, about how Google will share with authors some of the money it hopes to make from its digitization of books in copyright. The agreement itself is very long (you can download it here) and rather complicated. It isn't set in stone quite yet, but the cement is hardening. In order to opt out, you have to notify the settlement administrator by 5 May 2009. You can also stay in the settlement but object to some of its terms, if you make your objections by 5 May 2009. That's only a few months away, so it's not too early to start forming an opinion.

I haven't yet read the agreement all the way through. I didn't think I was going to need to, because I have warm, fuzzy feelings both about Google and the Authors Guild. Also, the site that the settlement administrator has set up for authors to claim their work looks streamlined and friendly and is in fact very easy to use. But now that I've used it, I have some questions, and I'm not sure how to answer them.

For one thing, I'm pretty sure that I filled out the online claims form "wrong," but I felt that I had little choice if I wanted to protect my rights. Then again, I may not have filled them out "wrong"; I'm not sure. Here are some of the dilemmas I found myself facing.

First, under the terms of the settlement, I allegedly don't have rights to my published work unless it was registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. The settlement's fine print claims that this is in conformity with a court decision. I don't think this fine print matters much in my case, because I suspect that most of my published work was copyrighted on my behalf by my publishers, but if it did matter, it would be more than a little enraging. When I started life as a writer, the law of the land rendered it unnecessary to register one's work with the U.S. Copyright Office in order to own copyright in it. In fact, the consensus was that only fussbudgets bothered to. Copyright of one's expression was a common-law claim that didn't need bureaucratic imprimatur; if challenged, you only needed to be able to prove that you and no one else had written the words in question. Listed in Google's database, though not yet digitized, is my undergraduate thesis on Nelson Algren. I know I never registered the copyright. I'm also fairly sure that there are only two surviving copies of it, one on my bookshelf here at home and another in the bowels of Widener Library at Harvard. But it's nonetheless distressing to imagine that if Google were to digitize it, I might not be able to control what happened to it, or make money off it if suddenly a great number of people wanted to know what I thought about Chicago realism when I was twenty. I've also never registered the copyright to any of my magazine articles, ever, but I've felt confident until this week that I owned copyright in them nonetheless, and continued to own copyright when they were reprinted in books, and would not lose that copyright if someone scanned and uploaded it.

Another problem is the settlement's division of the literary world into books and "inserts." An "insert," in the terms of the settlement, is a part of a book that an author owns a right to. For example, the introduction and notes to the Modern Library edition of Royall Tyler's Algerine Captive are copyrighted in my name, so they're my "inserts" in that edition. Since the book is still in print, I told Google that Modern Library still has the rights, and I presume this means the Modern Library will get the lump-sum cash payment for its digitization, not me. But an article that I wrote on Milan Kundera for the magazine Lingua Franca was reprinted in the anthology Quick Studies, which is now out of print, so presumably I will get some money off of that. Not as much as I think I deserve, though. Google is offering to reimburse authors in several ways: first through lump-sum payments for digitization, and later through revenue sharing, based on the money Google makes by selling subscriptions to its database to libraries and colleges, by placing ads on webpages that display the digitized material, and perhaps by selling downloads of books otherwise out of print. As an insert, my old Lingua Franca article will bring me a $15 lump-sum payment and later, perhaps, a $50 payment for inclusion in databases that Google sells to libraries and colleges. But according to Attachment C of the settlement agreement, my insert will bring me nothing from any of Google's other revenue-sharing programs. If Google sells ads next to my Kundera article, or sells someone a download of it, I get zilch. Since Quick Studies is an anthology, it consists entirely of inserts. So who's this revenue going to be shared with? The magazine Lingua Franca, by the way, is defunct. As a writer, I've made far more money off of magazine articles than books at this stage of my career, and I still make money off the reprinting of some of them. It seems to me that excluding "inserts" from substantial revenue sharing is an element of the settlement agreement worth objecting to.

A confusing element of the system: multiple digitized versions. Google's database seems to know that it has scanned both the hardcover and the paperback versions of a short story collection that I helped to translate, Josef Skvorecky's The Tenor Saxophonist's Story. I claimed inserts in both versions, even though the instructions told me not to, because I figured Google would be able to figure out that they were the same book. I claimed both of them for a reason: how else am I to be be sure that Google knows that I have a rights claim (in this case, as a translator, a pretty limited rights claim, but still, something) to both versions? For some reason, Google has scanned two versions of my book American Sympathy, and its database doesn't seem to know they're the same book. Moreover, it also has a reference to what seems to be a free-standing copy of one of my book's chapters, not yet digitized, which I never published separately. I claimed that, too. And I claimed an "insert" in a scholarly anthology that reprints a journal article that overlaps a great deal with one of the book's chapters. I know for a fact that no one else has any right to that insert. Google's instructions say that if an insert reprints material also published in a book, the author should only claim either the book or the insert, but not both. Well, that makes sense as far as the lump payments go. But if Google is later going to sell ads on webpages or sell downloads, it doesn't make sense. The income that Google will be making off my content will be split between the various versions of my work that are in its databases, and I should be able to claim revenue from all versions they hold of everything I've written. (By the way, this book, too, remains in print, so as I understand it, I won't be getting any lump-sum payments for it no matter how I fill out the forms.)

I'll end by saying that this agreement is so complex that it seems destined to have unintended consequences, and that I welcome corrections to any misunderstandings I may have made here. I look forward to learning other writers' reactions to the agreement and the claims process, because my sense is that most of us in the rank and file have yet to weigh in on them.

Flip you for it

If the recession lasts another year, the New York Times will probably survive. If it lasts two more years, analysts aren't sure. That's one way of reading the latest reporting about the paper's future from the New York Times itself. By borrowing $250 million in January from a Mexican billionaire at what it calls "punishing terms," the paper, according to analysts, "has positioned itself well to ride out another year of recession, maybe two." The trouble is that the analysts also say that the Times accepted the punishing terms because they expect they will only be able to get even worse loan offers as the recession progresses. "Maybe two" years isn't a comfortingly distant horizon.

Another official revelation in the article: Somewhat morbidly, the longterm health of the New York Times is now understood by those who guide it to be conditional on the death of other newspapers across America. "There is a feeling among analysts that there is merit to the last-man-standing strategy," the Times reports. In 2010 or 2011, one analyst suggests, "there could be dramatically fewer newspapers," and absent those competitors, the Times should be able to prosper. To me this sounds a little bit like saying that in the event of a plague, there will be proportionally speaking a lot of canned food left over for survivors.

The real thing

After editing the late John Leonard for sixty-nine months, during which despite regular chemotherapy he never missed a deadline, Jennifer Szalai of Harper’s magazine looks back to their first month working together (subscription required):

I had the young editor’s tendency to err on the far side of caution. My queries to John weren’t many, but their phrasing was that of someone who had never met a hair she wouldn’t split yet was shy about wielding the knife. I recently opened up the Microsoft Word document on which we did most of our edits for that [first] column, last saved at 8:22 P.M. on February 11, 2003, and I saw a bold-faced query of mine after John’s reference to “a techno-rave, ZyloFlex body armor, and some stun-gun sex.” I had bolded “stun-gun sex” and added, “John: Just to clarify: Is ‘stun-gun’ meant metaphorically here?”

No, it most emphatically wasn’t.