T. J. Stiles

Finalists Announced for 2015 Plutarch Award

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BIO is proud to announce the four finalists for the 2015 Plutarch Award —  the world’s only literary award presented by biographers, to biography.

The four finalists for the 2015 Plutarch Award are (alphabetical by author):

  • The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961 by Irwin F. Gellman (Yale)
  • Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown)
  • Custer’s Trials:  A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T.J. Stiles (Knopf)
  • Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan (Harper)

In February, BIO’s Plutarch Committee – an esteemed group of BIO members, chaired by biographer and historian Douglas Brinkley – kicked off this year’s Plutarch selection process by naming ten outstanding nominees.  (If you missed the announcement, you can see the list right here.)  And now, after further deliberation by the committee, that list has been winnowed down to the four finalists – one of which will be chosen as the Best Biography of 2015.

BIO members in good standing will now be asked to cast their vote for the Plutarch Award winner.  Voting will remain open until midnight on May 15, 2016, to give members plenty of time to read any of the four books before making a decision.

The winner will be announced on Saturday, June 4, at the Seventh Annual BIO Conference in Richmond, Virginia. (Still haven’t registered for the conference? You can do that right here.)

Fighting for the Digital Future

by T.J. Stiles
The world’s wealthiest corporations may take your work in its entirety for their own profit. They do not have to ask you for permission, let alone pay you. That’s essentially the ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in the Authors Guild’s long-running legal battle against Google over its massive book-digitization program. Remarkably, the court exacerbates the disparity of wealth and power in America by undermining property rights—even as it violates the purpose of copyright law.

The editors of The Biographer’s Craft (TBC) have been kind enough to let me respond to an opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Pamela Samuelson, cited in the last issue of TBC. As a member of the board of the Authors Guild, one of BIO’s sister organizations, I want to explain why the Authors Guild is appealing the decision—and why it’s terrible for authors.

Samuelson, and the Second Circuit, turn the issues completely upside down. They focus on the end result: that Google has chosen, for now, to make search results available only in snippet form. (Google defines for itself what “snippet” means, by the way.) They argue that this does not undermine the book market, as readers can’t read an entire book this way.

That might be a good argument if the Authors Guild had sued end users of Google’s service. But we didn’t. The lawsuit is not over how Google dispenses stolen goods, but the stealing itself. The corporation made complete copies of our books for its own profit. The courts have always held that such copying is a blatant violation of creators’ rights, whatever happens afterward.

Google itself tells us that search and data-mining rights for books have value. It spent millions on its book-digitization project, and it is legally obligated to use its resources to make money for shareholders. And if Google can do it, so can anyone; Google’s profits from our books will invite competition. But what if Google had lost? What if the courts had held that business corporations must negotiate with authors? Then Google and any rivals would have to bid, driving up the value of our rights.

After all, that is the point of copyright: to promote the creation of art and knowledge by reserving to creators the financial rewards of their work. And those rewards are growing thinner. The book market is one of the last pieces of the economy in which the individual is a key player, yet authors find themselves powerless before the new digital gatekeepers—corporations that tower over even publishers, our traditional business partners. These gatekeepers profit from distribution, not creation, and they are deliberately driving down the value of our creations in digital form.

Of course, academic authors do not depend on income from their books. That’s a good thing; academic writing is essential to society. But our culture needs more than monographs. As a recent Authors Guild member survey shows, writers’ incomes are declining, not growing. We need every possible income stream to stay in business.

In the end, this case is about the future of the book itself. Therein lies the irony of Google and Samuelson’s position: They are the luddites, arguing that the book market will always be the same, that authors must be limited to their existing rights and traditional notions of the book itself.

The decision in favor of Google holds that the computer search is a “transformative” use of a book, which denies the original creator any rights. If it’s transformative merely to have a computer look through a book, that’s setting a very low bar for allowing others to use entire works without permission. One could argue that adaptations for film, television, or audiobooks were far more transformative; if the Second Circuit’s doctrine had prevailed a century ago, countless authors would have been denied critical income and creative control.

The Authors Guild is not opposed to the Google books program; rather, we want authors to be included and rewarded, to be incentivized to make the most of the technological future. Already digital media are changing the way people “consume” books; authors want to help shape new models of reading their work. But the court is narrowing authors’ rewards—and opportunities—in the digital realm.

Personally, I fear that this decision will make it still harder for authors to digitally transform their own works. We have barely tapped the possibilities—overlaying traditional narrative text with images, sound, embedded digressive essays, intertextual links, and interactive features, and who knows what else. That’s what I wanted for the digital edition of my most recent book, but the downward pressure on e-book prices by digital gatekeepers made it impossible, since it would have cost more than the print edition. The Second Circuit’s decision, I fear, will exacerbate the trend. Even if we could afford to transform our books, we’d be forced to compete with wealthy corporations over digital iterations of our own work. That’s a competition we can’t win.

T. J. Stiles received the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt. His newest book is Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. He is on the BIO Advisory Board and the Authors Guild Council.

Event Honors Segal, Explores the Biographer’s Craft

About 150 people from the publishing and cultural worlds of New York City turned out on November 4 to honor Jonathan Segal, winner of BIO’s second annual Editorial Excellence Award, and to hear some of the many biographers he’s worked with extol his dedication to his writers and the books they create.

BIO board member Will Swift acted as MC for the evening, and he began by noting the “extraordinary loyalty” Segal engenders in his writers. That loyalty is reflected in part by how long writers choose to stay with him. Panelists Paul Hendrickson, Eric Lax, and T. J. Stiles, along with moderator Kate Buford, have almost a century of combined experience working with Segal.

Panel Discussion
Before the panelists sung Segal’s praises, they addressed the issue, “How Do Great Biographies Get Made, and Why Do They Matter?” Buford began by asking the writers how they get their ideas. Stiles said he looks for strong stories that address some moral question of right and wrong. His subjects tend to be morally compromised in some way. Lax is drawn to people whose lives pose questions—questions he’s compelled to find answers to. He said the subject has to be someone “you’re willing to live with for the time it takes to do that.” Lax, whose subjects have included Woody Allen, also talked about the difference of writing about living and dead subjects. Since the former’s life is still unfolding, “You can be much more surprised by the living person than the dead person.”

For the process of writing, Hendrickson saw it as an act of discovery: “Where a book starts out is not where a book is going to end up.” Biographers need to be willing to follow where the story they uncover takes them, he said.

Of course, that process depends on what kinds of sources the biographer uncovers. While writing about Jesse James, Stiles had no diaries, no internal sources, to work with. For that kind of book, putting the subject in a historical context provided some of the plot. Writing about Cornelius Vanderbilt, many of Stiles’s sources stressed the subject’s business dealings, so that shaped the book. Stiles said, “Make a virtue out of what your material is.”

The panelists also examined the role of morality in capturing a persona. “Part of what moves me forward is trying to understand the underlying morality [of a subject],” Hendrickson said. Lax said one of his goals is to try to understand the person underneath the persona, their values and what drove them to live the life they did—“the intangible things that make a person a person.” The writer’s own sense of morality factors in, too. Stiles said writers should treat their subjects with “simple decency” and “honor the three dimensional humanity” even with subjects who commit bad acts.

Segal’s Influence
The panelists spent time discussing their lengthy relationships with Segal and what makes him such a great editor. Buford recounted Segal’s exhortation to “think harder” and to control tangents—bring the story back to the subject. Hendrickson described Segal’s role in helping him find the focus for his book on the civil rights era, Sons of Mississippi. Hendrickson also praised Segal for his patience and letting the author work at his own deliberate pace.

Segal doesn’t want to just help produce a book that will sell; he wants his authors to be better writers. Segal relies on an intuition that tells him something is wrong. To solve it, Stiles said, “He doesn’t tell me what I had to do, but where I had to do it.” Lax had a similar view: Segal wants to help authors produce the best book they can write.

The Editorial Excellence Award
As he introduced Carl Bernstein, who gave Segal his award, Swift condensed the thrust of the panelists’ comments into a simple observation: Segal “loves all authors.” Bernstein then described his relationship with Segal as the two of them worked on Bernstein’s biography of Hillary Clinton. Segal, with a background in journalism, knew the story was still unfolding, and he didn’t hector his author to speed up the writing process. Bernstein came to see that “Jon is interested, above all, in the truth. And the book isn’t there until he thinks you’ve reached the truth.”

Bernstein commented on the collaborative nature of working with Segal. He encourages authors to dig deeper, and then helps shapes the writing, but in the end, “it’s still your work, but you know it is your work that has come from a place you couldn’t have reached on your own.”

Accepting his award, Segal said he was deeply touched and humbled. He traced his career in publishing, starting as a journalist at the New York Times. He recounted reviewing a children’s book for his first assignment, and for another story, approving the headline “Man Kills Self, Then Wife.” An editor at the paper suggested, “The quality of your writing is such that you might want to try editing.” That comment set Segal off on the path that led him to touch the careers and lives of many biographers. The writers, he added, have enriched his life as well.

The evening’s event was coordinated by BIO board members Kate Buford, Gayle Feldman, Anne Heller, and Will Swift, and co-sponsored by the New York Society Library. A video of the complete ceremony is available on the library’s website.