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A Novelist Turns Himself In

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Dear Department of Justice prosecutors --

With a heavy heart, I wish to turn myself in. Now that you have settled your case with three major publishers, including the publisher of my latest novel, I've decided it's time for me to come clean as well. For years, I've been living with the guilt of thinking I could make money from mere words. I now realize my error.

Words, after all, are free. It costs me nothing to think of one or type one. It also costs nothing for me to type, say, 150,000 words and shape them into a 400-page novel. There is no shipping expense from my typing and little overhead (other than coffee, and I suppose my mortgage). I have no employees, and my fingers thus far have refrained from forming a union and demanding health coverage or 401(k)s.

Writing does require quite a lot of time and effort and expertise, of course, but it's foolish to think such costs could be passed on to customers. In this digital age, we're told that information should be free. The people who say this tend to be billionaire owners of tech companies, who need free content to power their sites and who zealously protect their own trade secrets, but that's nitpicking.

It's unwise for writers to criticize this new arrangement too loudly, for fear of being torn apart in Amazon reviews and elsewhere online, suffering grievous damage to their reputations (which is sometimes the only thing a writer owns). This is why so few of us have dared raise their voices, but hopefully more will follow my example and turn themselves in.

Your announcement detailed the way in which publishers colluded to drive up the cost of e-books. They were panicked because Amazon, in order to sell more of its Kindles (then priced more than $200 each), had started selling e-books at well below cost. The billion-dollar company's plan to increase its market share by devaluing the very product created by its competitors (the publishers) was working brilliantly, and everyone involved in publishing was a fool to try and stop what appeared to be a monopoly in the making.

I confess that I too have engaged in illicit transactions with Little, Brown (owned by Hachette, which settled with you last week) and Random House, which together have published my three novels. In these transactions, I signed contracts with the companies in which I agreed to receive remuneration for writing. It's true, my cut was only 10-15 percent of a hardcover novel, and 7.5 percent of paperbacks, meaning I earn about $2.50-3.75 for a $25 hardcover or $1.13 for a $15 paperback, but still. It was sheer greed on my part, and if there's anything the 2008 financial collapse taught us, it's that greed is only good if you're already rich.

(As for my cut of an e-book, don't ask. Even my literary agent, who negotiated the contract and likely will be turning herself in as well, can't explain it to me. It's set forth in the longest paragraph of the contract and involves so many variables I started having high school algebra flashbacks. Asked what it means for my bottom line, she shrugged, "It's a lot less.")

I confess too that I've been in denial of the fact that ours is an age in which wealth is being redistributed from creators -- artists, writers, musicians, editors -- to programmers and the makers of gadgets. Anyone who creates something that can easily be scanned online or downloaded through pirate sites is fair game.

The people who design, program, and sell Kindles, iPads, Droids, apps, and software are making a killing, however, and God bless these American innovators. Even if they actually do most of that work in China.

DOJ's report also noted that publishing executives met at New York restaurants to enact their collusion in person, so as not to leave a paper trail or any incriminating emails. It's true -- I was there. (That's me giggling evilly in the background of your wiretap.) We drank vodka distilled from librarians' tears and smoked cigars rolled from the rejection letters that editors send to aspiring writers. It was a grand time.

It also was a very cozy room, since not as many people work in publishing these days, due to all the layoffs.

Thomas Mullen's most recent novel is The Revisionists. Follow him on @mullenwrites.