The Second Revolution and the Authors Guild—by Ilil Arbel

Author Ilil Arbel

City: Mainz, Germany
Year: 1399 CE
Location: A café that caters to scribes, illuminators, and publishers.

A tired looking man walks into the café and joins a group at one of the tables.
“What a day, guys,” he says. “I wrote almost six pages today; we practically ran out of quill pens. I need a beer.”
One of the men sighs. “Soon this will be the last of your problems, Heinrich.”
“Ha? Problems? Why?” said Heinrich. “You all look so gloomy, what’s wrong? And what’s with Friedrich over there?”
Everyone turns to look at Friedrich, who is sitting at another table, his head buried in his hands.
“He is an illuminator, Franz. He is doomed, and he is afraid to tell Magda and the children…”
“What are you talking about? He works for the best publisher in town!” Franz says. “He has nothing to worry about since they just started writing a new Bible for King Zrob of Khazaria!”
“So you haven’t heard, Franz,” said another person. “You remember last year, when Johannes said he was going to invent a printing press, and we all laughed? Well, he did. The first Gutenberg Printing Machine was just set up right here in Mainz, and he has very important, wealthy investors. Scribes and illuminators are a thing of the past.”
“Na,” said Franz. “It’s just a fad. The kids will enjoy it, but real scholars are not going to look at those things they call books. I remember how he described them, they are so ugly, you don’t even roll them out, you flip pages… who can read like that? And what about art? They will never be able to insert art properly since it will break down between those pages. Forget it, we are fine. Herman!!!! Would you bring me some beer already? And take another one to Friedrich over there, he needs to cheer up.”

It was not a fad, of course, and Gutenberg changed the world of publishing with his printing machine. Indeed, many scribes, illuminators, and publishers went out of business. And now we are witnessing the second revolution in the field of publishing with e-books, self publishing, traditional publishers declaring bankruptcy, blogs, and the emergence of the giant, The old stigma about self publishing is gone, any writer who wishes to publish has several good options, and many agents are contemplating a career change. And yet… the dream of being published by a traditional publisher is not dead. Most of us still fantasize about the handshake with the agent, the signing of the contract, the advance check, the lunch with the editor, and the joy of having the marketing department take care of promotions. And so we watch the big players – Amazon, the publishers, the government, and the book stores, and we wonder who will win in the end, the “indies” or the “traditionals.” We have no idea.

So when I recently opened my Spring 2012 copy of the Authors Guild Bulletin, I could not believe my eyes. I have been a member since my first book was published, by a traditional publisher. I rushed to belong to them, and paid more than I could afford for the privilege. They have been around for nearly a hundred years, and belonging to them meant that you are part of the establishment. No one is a bigger snob than the Authors Guild, no one is more utterly embedded in tradition. They accepted only those who had at least one book published by one of the traditional.

Until now. Here is the excerpt from the Bulletin:

“The ballot also included a proposed amendment to the Guild’s constitution, which would expand the requirements for eligibility for new members to include those authors who have been published by publishers that are not considered “established” by the current constitution, but who earn sufficient writing income in that regard. The purpose of the expansion is to respond to the changing publishing environment by adding a new category based on income from writing, rather than the type of publisher or number of articles published. Mr. Aiken took questions about the amendment and clarified that the criteria would not affect existing members. The amendment passed with overwhelming support, along with the slate of council members.”

The indies have won.

But what kind of victory is it? What is the worth of belonging to a guild who bases its view of your value not by how good your book is, but by how many copies you sold? During the hundred years of their existence, they never cared about your income. They assumed that if a traditional publisher accepted your book, you are a professional. Your book passed the editorial department, the proofreader, the publisher. You are a writer. But now, they would accept an author of badly edited, trashy books – if he or she was lucky enough to find an audience willing to spend some money. They would accept Amanda Hocking, but not Jane Austen… Of course, they had to change their policy, because soon there will be fewer and fewer new authors published by the traditionals and ready to fill the Guild’s need for members. Had they decided to accept an indie after, say, having three members read his or her book and comment about its worth, it would have been okay. But basing the entire decision on money, they have lost everything that made them stand apart and be a guiding light for authors. Do the indies even need them now?

Ilil Arbel is the author of a number of fiction and non-fiction books, including biographies, memoirs, novels, mythology/folklore, and metaphysics. Her short stories and folk tales have been published by Encyclopedia Mythica, Shorts, and Mountain Muse. She has contributed numerous articles on the subjects of natural history, personal histories, biography, health, education, social commentaries, and Judaic myths. Ilil has a Ph.D. in the field of mythology and folklore. She has lived and studied in Tel Aviv, Paris, and New York, and currently resides in Manhattan. For more information, see her website:

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11 thoughts on “The Second Revolution and the Authors Guild—by Ilil Arbel”

  1. In a way, this does not surprise me. Full membership in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has (for years, if not always) been based on publication, *but* publication by a journal or publisher that pays X cents per word. It was their way of ensuring that only writers of a certain caliber (i.e., those who could get somebody to buy their work for a decent amount of money) could be accepted into SFWA, which they consider to be a professional organization.

    Granted, SFWA members write genre fiction and, as such, already smell a little funny to some parts of the literary establishment (undeservedly so, in many cases, but there you are). So it makes sense that they would have pretty strict membership guidelines to counteract it.

    1. Hi!

      I certainly do not put down Sci Fi writing! However, the Authors Guild were proud of their literary, not commercial evaluation, and that is what makes the change so strange…


    1. Indeed. I read many articles about the changes, and it seems to me that even though everyone tries to predict the future of publishing, no one really knows what is going to happen.

  2. I haven't read her books, so have no opinion of "quality" (whatever that might mean to you), but find it interesting you picked Amanda Hocking as your example of someone that would be able to join the author's guild due to this rule since she would have been eligible without this change too. However, your point, that an author who has published a book other than through a traditional publisher who doesn't meet the dollars earned threshold is still excluded, but may still be worthy based on the quality of their work.

    What I don't understand is why an indie author would want to join an organization that through their actions gives every indication to be working against them rather than for them.

    1. I totally agree. I don't think an indie writer would have the slightest interest in joining the Authors Guild. Personally I think the Authors Guild are going to lose traditionally published authors as well because of this rule.

  3. I let my author's guild pass around the time I got sick in 2005. Happily I have never renewed it. As for SFWA, they have shot themselves several times in the foot by not helping to train their writers like the RWA. Even if I am a famous writer, I will not join that group. I was astounded at the snobbery.

    I am happy to say that I am now an indie.

    1. Many well-known authors are joining the indie revolution. I think it's inevitable, and I wonder how many traditional publishers are going to survive the revolution.

  4. I love that little scenario Ilil and I agree that we are going through another transition period but the thing that struck me was that back in the time of Guttenberg very few commoners would have known how to read and even fewer would have been able to afford even one of the new printed books.

    With this latest transition ebook readers are cheap enough for every common man/woman to buy and ebooks by indies are often so cheap they cost less than a newspaper. This suits Amazon just fine and it suits readers as well because reading has never been so cheap.

    I do worry though, about what will happen to indie authors and the movement in general when Amazon decides that a new business model is required or when readers get sick of playing a lottery every time they buy an ebook.

    At the moment the lottery does not matter so much because the price is so cheap. If you buy a stinker then you haven't lost much and you'll know not to buy from that author in the future. However what happens if Amazon changes the rules?

    We already have a situation where most indies price their books at $2.99 because that seems to be what everyone else is doing. What if that average price doubles to $5.99? Will readers still be content to take a risk with their buying dollar or will they start to want a little more certainty? And if they do want certainty then where will they look for that certainty?

    As indie authors we may not like gatekeepers of any kind but we are not going to be the ones controlling the changes that occur once the traditional gatekeepers are gone for good. Readers and profits are going to decide how the indie movement evolves.

    I suspect the Authors Guild is already positioning itself as one of those up and coming new gatekeepers.

    In the science fiction/fantasy genres I have always used the Hugo and Nebula awards as defacto gatekeepers because I have the expectation that the people who determine who wins, or even who is nominated, know what they are doing. I may not always agree with their choices but I am rarely disappointed.

    I am certain that there will be new gatekeepers because it's in human nature to want them. The only question is who will these new gatekeepers be? Will indies self-regulate somehow or will we allow commercial interests to dictate the definition of quality in the future?

    We live in interesting times. 😀

    1. Amazon controls the situation with an iron hand. However, since things change so quickly, a new force may rise any day and change things in a new direction by simply being the competition. All we can do is ride the wave. Now that Microsoft bought Barnes and Noble, would they be able to compete? Who knows?

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