The Walkerville Weekly Reader

National Desk: Hard-hitting journalism from your completely un-biased (pinky swear!) reporters in Walkerville, VA.

Walkerville, VA
Monday, April 22, 2024
Carolyn Purcell, Editor

Not at Our Expense

Hark Thrice’s classic column decrying book reviews in the New York Times.

I am a writer.

I have invested a small fortune in books and copies of old broadsheets, spent countless hours on archive searches, paid assistants to dig up obscure bits of information, and then sat at my keyboard trying to spin a mountain of facts into a compelling narrative. Money advanced by my publisher has made this possible.

Except for a few big-name authors, publishers roll the dice and hope that a book's sales will return their investment. Because of this, readers have a wealth of wonderful books to choose from. Most authors do not live high on their advances; my hourly return at this point is laughable.

Only if my book sells well enough to earn back its advance will I make additional money, but the law of copyright assures me of ongoing ownership. With luck, income will flow to my publisher and me for a long time, but if my publisher loses interest, I will still own my book and be able to make money from it.

So my question is this: When did we in this country decide that this kind of work and investment isn't worth paying for?

That is what the New York Times, the powerful and extremely wealthy newspaper, with co-founders ranking among the richest people in the world, is saying by declining to license in-copyright works in its book review program, which has the otherwise admirable aim of reviewing the world’s books for perusal by anyone within the world.

The Times says writers and publishers should be happy about this: it will increase their exposure and maybe lead to more book sales.

That’s a devil’s bargain.

We’d all like to have more exposure, obviously. But is that the only form of compensation the Times can come up with when it makes huge profits on the ads it sells within the pages its subscribers are compelled to read?

Now that the Authors Guild has objected, in the form of a lawsuit, to the Times’s appropriation of our books, we’re getting heat for standing in the way of progress, again for thoughtlessly wanting to be paid. It’s been tradition in this country to believe in property rights. When did we decide that socialism was the way to run a newspaper?

The Times contends that the portions of books it will make available to readers amount to “fair use,” the provision under copyright that allows limited use of protected works without seeking permission. That makes a private company, which is profiting from the access it provides, the arbiter of a legal concept it has no right to interpret. And they’re reading the entire books, with who knows what result in the future.

There is no argument about the ultimate purpose of the Times’s initiative. Great value lies in an archive of reviews containing all the world’s best books, at least to that fraction of society that buys newspapers. It would make human knowledge available on an unprecedented scale. But it must be done correctly, by acquiring the rights to the resources it wishes to exploit.

The value of the Times’s project notwithstanding, society has traditionally seen its greatest value in the rights of individuals, and particularly in the dignity of their work and just compensation for it.

The people who cry that information wants to be free don’t address this dignity or this aspect of justice. They’re more interested in ease of assembly. The alphabet ought to be free, most certainly, but the people who painstakingly arrange it into books deserve to be paid for their work. This, at the core, is what copyright is all about. It’s about a just return for work and the dignity that goes with it.

The New York Times’s new concept of “reviewers” is innovative, certainly. But their “reviewers” should not be able to quote from our books or summarize our books without paying the appropriate license to do so. This is only fair to us as authors and to the future that they claim to intend to benefit. For there will be no future benefit if book readers can acquire the summary and even quotes from books by reading “book reviews” rather than by reading the books themselves.

The Walkerville Weekly Reader is proud to reproduce this article from our archive of the nineteenth century works of Hark Thrice. This article originally appeared in the Reader on Monday, February 29, 1897.

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