Scott Turow: Amazon isn't all bad!

The author speaks to Salon about his new novel, campaign-finance, and why Amazon's too big to be pure evil

Published October 10, 2013 4:18PM (EDT)

Scott Turow    (Jeremy Lawson Photography)
Scott Turow (Jeremy Lawson Photography)

Scott Turow knows whereof he writes; the author of many books began his career as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago before pivoting into a series of novels that merge well-researched respectability with just-pulpy-enough crime action.

And his new novel, "Identical," takes on issues of campaign finance reform, as it assays the tale of two identical twins, one of whom is a front-runner in a political race and the other is in prison for murder. Paul, the successful twin, is plugged into the structure of power and money that so underpins modern campaigning.

But campaign-finance isn't the only subject that interests Turow, the president of the Authors Guild; he's been vociferous about authors' rights, writing a recent piece about the degree to which Amazon is killing authors by a thousand cuts. However, in a conversation with Salon, he admitted he's happy for the attention he's gotten from Amazon as a writer, and conceded he doesn't think the company's all bad. He spoke broadly, too, about politics and how life for a writer has changed since his career began.

I’m interested in your interest in campaign finance reform, as dealt with in this book. I wonder: Do you think the horse is so far out of the barn that it can’t be reined back in? Do you think there is a possibility that we could effectively reform this manner by which elections are financed?

If you remember, Arizona had a system where they basically offered public funding to match anybody’s private funding. And the Supreme Court decided that this was a public punishment to the free speech rights of the private funder, a decision which, candidly, strikes me as absurd. They think that proponents up in Arizona, if they have enough to do it, it’ll pass muster. I don’t know what it is, but the reality is that people with lots and lots of money have the clout to do this in most states. The comparison is, the reason everybody hates their insurance companies, is that they essentially logroll most state legislatures in the United States. And create a system of crazy rules for themselves, the sort of stuff people are familiar with from their insurance companies.

So I’m not really optimistic that a state-by-state version of campaign finance reform is actually likely to get anywhere. I do think over time, the Supreme Court majority will change. It is not the case that there aren't expressive elements in spending money on politics – there are – but the idea that that is an unburdened form of First Amendment expression that can’t be restricted by the government in any meaningful way doesn’t tend to recognize the other interests at hand: The most important one, of course, is the idea of "one person, one vote." If we mean that, and if we believe that the 14th Amendment is a fundamental democratic precept that means that every citizen has to have an equal voice and choice in his or her government, then it is logically inconsistent that the rich maintain a disproportionate right to influence the elections.

And so, I do think there is a Supreme Court that will look at the equality principle in a more generous way and will not prohibit spending money on politics but will prohibit the kinds of expenditures that essentially give one person a megaphone and limits everybody else to a whisper. That clearly is where we are right now.

It strikes me that you are consistently speaking for the littler person against the 800-pound gorilla -- I’m kind of thinking of Amazon here -- and I'm curious about the degree to which Amazon, which sells your books, bothers you in its dominance.

Amazon just chose "Identical" as the best mystery of the month. [laughs] So am I going to repudiate that endorsement? Of course not. And there is a lot about the way Amazon does business that I admire; I think in many ways they’ve built a better mousetrap. But I think their pricing of e-books was predatory; it was designed to put brick and mortar bookstores out of business, it was designed to prevent them from entering the e-book business as competitors, because brick and mortar stores, especially independent stores, couldn’t afford to sell e-books, and it’s a way to stifle competition generally.

And they are frequently a really ruthless competitor, as, for example, when Macmillan announced they were going to the agency model and they pulled the buy-this-book button off their site for every single book MacMillan sold. Not the e-books, because they could always say there was a pricing dispute, but every physical book. And that persisted just long enough that everybody got that point and Amazon avoided facing legal action that would unquestionably have forced them to reverse their practices. I mean what major publishing conglomerate wants to lose a week or eight or nine days of sales on Amazon? It’s the price of speaking your mind.

So, Amazon is too big to be all bad or all good. I hate trying to paint them with a broad brush, but in terms of what they have done in their attempts to monopolize the e-book market, it’s very, very disturbing. And to go back to the source of your question, am I naturally a friend of the little guy? Yeah, I am.

I think some people were sort of disappointed when Obama spoke at Amazon, but also recognized that the company is riddled with contradictions –

I don’t think he should pay the price of that for complimenting Amazon for building big warehouses all over the United States and creating jobs for people. As I said, I don’t think we can condemn Amazon for everything. And Larry Kirshbaum, who is the head of Amazon Publishing, is an old, dear personal friend, he was my publisher for several years, and I refuse to disavow Larry personally. There are people who don't think I should talk to him because we have a difference of opinion about bookselling practices. That's nuts, as far as I'm concerned! Larry Kirshbaum's a wonderful human being.

Passions run so hot around these issues.

Absolutely. You know, with good reason. I mean, if you owned an independent bookstore you put your life into, 20 or 30 year of your life, you know, most of what you owned on earth, and Amazon comes along with these bare-knuckle tactics designed to put you out of business, your passions would run pretty high, too. And they are exacerbated by the fact that entities that you would think would be protecting you, like the Department of Justice, seem to see the other side. And so, you know, that only makes people angry because they feel like it’s got to be so tough. But, as I said, you know in the long run I would rather see Amazon committed to a policy of coexistence rather than taking prisoners. But I haven’t seen that change yet.

You entered the world of writing after having been in law school -- an environment you describe in your book "One L." Would you recommend that someone in your situation these days, a young person that has other skills but wants to write, enter writing or would you say that it is much more difficult now than when you got started?

I do agree with my friend Rick Russo who says that it's probably the case that we were lucky enough to be publishing in the golden age where if you were a successful novelist then that was sufficient. And my daughter has begun a career as a writer, which is frankly a lot more successful than her father had been at the age 26, but when I talk to her about this she says, Oh Dad none of my friends think that I’ll be published. The reality is, to go back to my days as a writing fellow at Stanford, most of my friends were just writers, there were many who were exceptions, including Alice Hoffman, but we didn’t think it was impossible!

In point of fact, it proved very difficult for most of us, not including me. But we didn’t realize that it was going to be impossible. We still saw a model out of there of being able to make it as a writer. You might have had to teach, you might have had to write technical manuals, but there was a way to put bread on the table and continue your career as a writer.

It is much, much harder now because of the amount of free content that’s already out there and you know the various competitive forces. My biggest message to people, and they are not understanding yet what is going on, and all of these companies whether we are talking about Apple or Google or Amazon, or, to a lesser extent, Microsoft. They were all outfitted as cool because they’ve engaged in really mind-bending innovation, but they are also private corporations that are out for their own profit. They are now collectively the biggest economic force in the world, leaving aside perhaps the governments of China and the United States. And they may be cool but they are out for themselves; to a great extent, they really are, all of them, time to time arrayed against writers and authors, and I just hope people wake before they so radically transform the world, that there's no putting Humpty Dumpty back together.

That gets back to what I was saying earlier with campaign finance and with Amazon, to some degree it feels as if we’ve crossed some sort of inflection point: That golden age probably isn’t coming back, and you see first hand at the Authors Guild where the authors feel that there are fewer and fewer advocates for writer’s interests.

That’s for sure, for sure. And those of us who do advocate for writers' interest are dismissed as Luddites or narrow-minded special-interest advocates. Whereas, I like to fool myself into believing that what I’m a spokesperson for is a reverse literary culture, where there are many people and many voices able to support themselves as writers independent of the patronage of a university or the government. And I think that’s what the Constitution had in mind when the framers instructed Congress to make laws about copyright to protect authors and venders. You know, I just think that vision is in jeopardy. I’m not naive enough to think that people will stop writing -- they won't, there'll be a lot of first novels and first books -- but as people get older and realize they can’t support their kids through writing, they are going to stop doing it, no matter how deep their passion is.

Is there any potential governmental or constitutional remedy to protect authors or to strengthen copyright, or things like that?

Well, you know, the deal up to now has been pursuing litigation strategy, and the fact that I just cited before, that we are up against. I can tell you about the suit against Google. I think I have to always remind people, in fairness to Google, that they did try to settle; they did, they reached an agreement, the authors and Google, which I thought was widely in benefit of everyone, not just authors and publishers and Google, but also to the customers of libraries across the United States where they would have been in access of this database. But in court, we had to fight, so that leaves the authors waving a small machete against one of the two richest corporations in the world. And so that is a pretty daunting fight. So if you say, is litigation going to do it, I don’t know.

You know, I like it, too. I use Google for searches all the time. But I also know that Google is also scanning my email through Gmail and my girlfriend likes to remind me that if we write, not to do it through Gmail. Somebody is watching. At the end of the day it's like everything else in a democracy: an informed citizenship will ultimately be the best protection for authors and everyone else but it's pretty hard to win the war of public relations when, in this instance too, just like campaign financing, Google owns the microphone.

I have always believed what Darryl Zanuck supposedly told one of his writers, that if he wanted to send a message he should use Western Union. I’m trying to write about these issues in a nuanced way. But do I think it’s a bad situation right now with campaign finance, yes. But I don’t want my novel to be understood as a prop.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Amazon Authors Guild Campaign Finance Identical Scott Turow