Royalties, Oh Royalties, Wherefore Art My Royalties?

“It is our hope that Hachette, in light of the loyalty its authors have shown throughout this debacle, takes this opportunity to revisit its standard e-book royalty rate of 25 percent of the publisher’s net profits.” Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild

So here we are. Hachette has a deal. Simon & Schuster has a deal. They have the pricing responsibility they wanted. Amazon has its “specific financial incentives” to compel them to use that power to price lower. Now we’ll get to see just how badly publishers want to institute a price-based windowing system for new releases (I’m setting the over/under on new release ebook prices at $16.99. And I’m taking the over.) But what did writers get out of this? I’m glad you (rhetorically) asked, because nobody else seems to be.

I’ve read all the coverage I can find and, as far as I can tell, the sum total of what writers got from this is that Hachette writers will have preorders reinstated and be back on two-day shipping. That’s about it. Oh yeah, there’s all the sales they lost during the past seven months. They’ve got that, too. There’s no Macmillan-like pool of recompense for those folks; no extra royalty payout for the damage done to their business. And they’ve got the hit yet to come from all those lost sales when their next contract rolls around. But at least, like the Robinson quote above, they’ve got hope that possibly Hachette (and others) maybe might take some time to reconsider their ebook royalty rates, if it’s not too much trouble. Because loyalty. My dog is loyal, but if I screw with his food, he bares his teeth and growls. I don’t screw with his food. Loyalty unrespected is subservience.

The blatantly obvious here is that anyone who thought writers would get anything but screwed on this was deluded. Especially after their authors interjected themselves into it in, bluntly, the stupidest possible way. They threw all their weight behind one side, not coincidentally, the side that needed them and they had leverage with, and asked nothing in return. Now we’re told they did it out of loyalty as if that’s some kind of honorable thing and not horribly misplaced naivete. Now we’re told authors are going to try to get better terms. My thoughts on that strategy were summed up nicely:

“What opportunity would that be? The one where they’ve settled up with Amazon, already have you all under contract at that standard, and don’t need to name-drop you morons in an obviously coordinated PR assault on a rival anymore? The opportunity to do a hell of a lot more than “hope they revisit the standard” was the past seven months when Amazon had Hachette over a barrel and the other publishers were all worried they were next.”

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s see what some publishing executives have to say:

“Speaking at a Society of Authors (SoA) panel on hybrid authors, Little, Brown CEO Ursula Mackenzie defended publishers from criticism by audience members that they now only take on books that will make money.

“Every book can’t make money,” she said. “There are careers we support for years…there are many books we publish lovingly where we don’t make money.”

Mackenzie said that publishers “are not taking a disproportionate part of the profit”, and that “no one benefits if publishers go out of business.” Little, Brown has a “fair rate for our e-books,” Mackenzie said.”

Good luck parsing the logic out of that one. “We publish lots of stuff that doesn’t make money, so we can’t pay you fairly for the things that do or we’d go out of business.”

That’s a helluva sales pitch. So even if I’m succesful, I’ll still be underpaid? Where do I sign up?!? This is the ultimate conclusion of the cultural enrichment argument. They’re not regular businesses, they’re a public good. So you can’t expect to be paid like a regular business. The company has to reap most of the proceeds so they can continue to underpay you to pay for all the stuff they produce that nobody wants. It’s all bullshit, of course, and pretty blatantly so. These are all huge, multi-billion-dollar publicly traded corporations. Do you think they’re shareholders are down with pissing money away in business-threatening chunks for culture’s sake? Or are they simply feeding you a line they know plays to your sensibilities to justify squeezing suppliers (you) to maximize profits?

Think about that last part for a minute. Just the idea of paying a better royalty rate caused her to pull the going out of business card. If you can’t even consider paying me a fair (or even just slightly higher) ebook royalty without it triggering fears of going under, does that make you more or less attractive to me as an author? You’re leveraged so thinly that fair recompense to writers can threaten the very existence of your company? What’s the upside for me to sign with you? A “quality” product no one buys or a product they do buy but I don’t reap fair reward for?

Now, of course, she claims to think their ebook royalty is fair, which is the problem. I don’t really believe she thinks that but enough of you do that they can continue to get away with pushing this nonsense. Here’s another:

“Questioned on author earnings, CEO Tom Weldon said that Penguin/Random House was always looking at how much authors were being compensated, but for the moment the 25% digital royalty rate would not be changed.

“Authors are, alongside readers, the foundation of our business,” he said. “We are always, always looking at our commercial arrangements with authors to make sure they’re fair and equitable. With e-book royalties, firstly and most importantly, the business model is as clear as mud. Rather than arguing about what slice of the cake we should distribute, we need to work out how big the cake should be.”

There you go, fair and equitable and the rate would not be changed. Get a load of that last sentence. We need to work out how big the cake should be? What the hell does that even mean? Is he talking about pricing? Is it a more ominous suggestion of further attempts at limiting the ebook market itself to a certain market share? Or even more ominously, is he talking not about how big the whole cake is but deciding how big the portion of the cake is that your portion comes from? The cake is a pretty big one, dude, I think portions are an appropriate topic of discussion at the moment. Look at how he phrased that, too: “Rather than arguing about what slice of the cake we should distribute…” They’re planning on keeping the whole damn cake and then deciding what tiny sliver they can afford to slice off for you. Do you need any more evidence that they see the proceeds from your book as “their cake”? Funny how they’re not waiting to work out how big the cake should be before touting the increased profits they’re reaping from this particular literary confection. But let’s not argue about it. Then they might actually have to address the issue rather than keep enjoying all that delicious extra cake they’ve got. Did you catch him wiping the crumbs from the corner of his mouth as he said “fair and equitable”?

Even the Author Guild itself admits the publishers have no will to even consider making a change in ebook royalty rate:

“Jean Craighead George’s original decision to publish an e-book edition (of Julie of the Wolves) with Open Road (which pays a 50% e-book royalty)—rather than with HarperCollins, her longtime publisher—was a principled rebuke of the major publisher’s measly 25% net e-book royalty. HarperCollins’s aggressive strategy (the publisher spent over $1.5 million to litigate a case that ended up being worth only $30,000) illustrates the importance to publishers of keeping e-book royalty rates at 25%.”

So if you already know this, please explain why you failed to do even the slightest bit of advocacy during the past year when the Big 5 in general, and Hachette specifically, were more vulnerable than they’ve been maybe in all of our lifetimes? You think it was a good idea to show unbridled loyalty to companies who, by your own admission, are being miserly with ebook royalties and intentionally underpaying your membership? Something you’ve been complaining about since, at least, 2009? That’s five years of talk with zero tangible results. Loyalty is a positive thing in some cases, but in this one, it’s high past time to bare your teeth. The question increasingly being asked, and rightly so, is does the Authors Guild have any teeth to bare? Instead of falling lockstep in line with the publishers, why didn’t you take advantage of this opportunity to make some progress? That’s what real advocacy is. What you’re doing is no different than what I do, talking. Only I’m not collecting dues or pretending I’m representing anyone’s interests.

Speaking of the blind leading the blind, here’s the Authors Guild meeting with members of Congress ahead of an upcoming review of copyright law:

“Executive Director of the Authors Guild, Mary Rasenberger’s speech was part of a panel co-hosted by the Authors Guild and aimed at giving the Congressional group a behind-the-scenes look at “a book’s passage from manuscript to marketplace.” The panel consisted of authors, editors, and publishers.

In her speech, Rasenberger focused on the “urgent state” of authorship today. “Even authors who made a living writing books for decades now need to find alternative sources of income,” she told the assembly. “This means they write less—and, in some cases, not at all. Fewer professional authors means fewer types of books that might take years of research and writing. These are precisely the kinds of books that further the knowledge and learning that copyright is meant to foster.”

Do you think her presentation of “manuscript to marketplace” included even a word about indies who skip the publisher involvement altogether? I don’t either. I’m certain it was a glowing testament to how essential publishers are, with writers and editors simply add-ons to the process, shepherded by their greatness. Maybe the urgent state of authorship wouldn’t be so urgent if authors had effective advocates. Maybe there wouldn’t be so many authors needing outside income streams if you did something about low royalties other than hope and talk. Don’t miss the loaded use of the term “professional” in there either. Who does this woman represent? They’ve done nothing about the royalty rate, they are dismissive of indies in presentation and implication if not in direct language. And they just came to heel when the publishers blew their dog whistles over the past few months, a time when they actually had some leverage to get something done. Amazon was practically begging them to do something. Is it any wonder publishers think they have you all locked down?

The question I’m asking is can authors get some real representation at these things? The only seat at the table we get is through groups like the Authors Guild, and sometimes that’s even less useful than having no seat at all. So what were they talking about at this congressional get together other than how crucial publishers are? Here’s the release from the committee:

“Great books, both fiction and non, have an incredible ability to capture our hearts and minds, taking us to another place or time with words on a page. Yet many of us do not think about the hard work and collaboration that goes on between authors, publishers, and many others to help take a book from manuscript to marketplace,” said Reps. Judy Chu and Howard Coble, co-chairs of the Creative Rights Council. “Together, this collaboration is at the heart of a $27.2 billion industry, but challenges like digital first sale, unreasonable expansion of fair use, and online piracy are threatening the livelihoods of the hard working men and women who bring these works to life. We are proud to have hosted this important panel in order to influence the conversation on copyright law as we continue moving forward.”

Notice authors is mentioned only once, in the context of the collaboration. Is it authors’ livelihoods they feel are threatened, because, as everyone should have already been expressly aware, the vast majority of traditional authors don’t have livelihoods from their work to be threatened. And that is in no way a recent development, rather a consequence of the industry’s very structure. So get ready for copyright law as publisher bailout (none of the benefits of which will even trickle down to the writers), coming soon to a congressional hearing near you.

It’s telling that both first sale and fair use were specifically cited as “threats”. Is this how the Authors Guild presented them? What exactly does Rasenberger mean by what “copyright is meant to foster”? First sale and fair use are both consumer rights granted by copyright (yes, consumers have rights under copyright law, too. Although maybe not for much longer if these folks are any indication.) How about we discuss life+70 that flies directly in the face of what copyright intended as a limited time of exclusivity for creators. It exists not for the benefit of creators, but of transferees (not mentioned there, by the way) so they can continue to profit from creators’ works for generations after their death. Or how about the fact that this standard has basically caused the public domain of recent material to wither and die (another element copyright law intended to be vibrant and available for both creators and the public).

But, alas, no. The “threats” here are like they are every time copyright comes up; the rights of consumers are given short shrift, if acknowledged at all, and the rights of creators are subverted, in direct opposition of what was intended, to protect corporate licensees’ profits. If you want to have a frank and open discussion of copyright law, let’s do it. But can we get someone other than the Authors Guild at the table please? I have no faith they’re even on the right side of these issues for authors and won’t simply fall lockstep in with publishers when push comes to shove (again). I’m sure they’ll talk a good game but when it comes time to pick a side to support, they’ll be right there with the publishers, no matter how much more ground creators and the public have to give up so Disney can continue milking Mickey Mouse in perpetuity.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe the Authors Guild, once it sinks in that their loyalty has gotten them squat, will finally break out the snarl and get down to the real business of business and stop validating the publishers’ “enriching themselves while underpaying writers is essential to culture” argument. And maybe pigs will fly.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Protect Yourself: Some suggestions for writers in the age of Agency reborn

Now that the 100-Years-War between Amazon and Hachette has drawn to a close, writers can do what they should have been doing the entire time (and what many of us indies have been saying, repeatedly, over and over and over again the whole time): stop worrying about a publisher’s deal with a retailer and start worrying about your own deal with the publisher. And to kick off, here is an example of a way not to do that:

“Speaking on behalf of the Authors Guild, president Roxana Robinson called the end of the standoff ‘great news for Hachette authors.’ Robinson said it was ‘heartening to see so many writers rally to the defense of their colleagues’…Robinson said that while terms are said to be favorable to authors, the Guild has no way of knowing at the present time if that is the case.

Bold emphasis added by me. Yup, great news! We don’t actually know that it’s great news or that the “heartening defense of colleagues” wasn’t actually a publisher-coordinated stroll down the garden path, but, hey, the war’s over and it looks like we won! The problem is that winning the war (if, in fact, that’s what happened. She just said they don’t know) isn’t the end, it’s winning the peace that matters now. Then there’s this:

“Robinson added that she hopes the ‘display of communal spirit played a part in bringing the negotiations to an end’ and ‘will prevent authors from being dragged into corporate disputes in the future.'”

Communal spirit?!? This is a high level, billion dollar corporate negotiation. Bezos and Pietsch didn’t burn one and sing Kumbaya to settle this. This is a serious business, sunshine, and you’re the President of a guild of professionals not a neighborhood bake sale. And this:

“‘It is our hope that Hachette, in light of the loyalty its authors have shown throughout this debacle, takes this opportunity to revisit its standard e-book royalty rate of 25 percent of the publisher’s net profits.”

Sweet Jesus! Tell me you’re not that naive. Loyalty?! What part of “billion dollar corporate negotiation” don’t you understand? You hope, in light of your “loyalty”, that they take this opportunity to revisit that standard? What opportunity would that be? The one where they’ve settled up with Amazon, already have you all under contract at that standard, and don’t need to name-drop you morons in an obviously coordinated PR assault on a rival anymore? The opportunity to do a hell of a lot more than “hope they revisit the standard” was the past seven months when Amazon had Hachette over a barrel and the other publishers were all worried they were next. The only opportunity you have now is for them to laugh in your face. Again. Just like they’ve been doing ever since you first started saying “we hope (insert publisher here) will rethink the 25% of net standard” back in fucking 2009! Hope is nice and all. Effective action is a little more useful. And you just pissed away a great opportunity to get something real done for authors in exchange for loyalty and hope. Good job, good effort. In other author news:

“Douglas Preston, who founded Authors United, said he was ‘relieved’ to hear about the agreement…he hopes that in future disputes between Amazon and publishers, ‘Amazon will never again seek to gain leverage by sanctioning books and hurting authors.'”

Of course he’s relieved. But guess what, Doug? Now you can’t blame Amazon for not discounting your books anymore. That’ll be your publisher doing that. And you’ll possibly be getting paid even less per high price book now than than you were before. Congrats on the big win! This guy’s a joke. Hachette’s only business with Amazon is selling books through them. The only leverage Amazon has is those books. Not only will they do it again, anyone in their position would as well, including the company he just spent six months shilling for while pretending to be a man of the people.

So, given the fact that the leadership caste of authors is woefully lacking, (my Dad would say “useless as tits on a bull”) here’s a couple things I’ve noticed about the state of things and a couple helpful suggestions.

1. 25% net ebook standard isn’t going anywhere

Despite Robinson’s hopes and dreams, I see no reason to believe this is even on the table. In fact, I’m suspicious this supposed price control of ebooks publishers are getting now won’t be used in ways that minimize author compensation and/or manipulate reversion clauses to retain rights they’d otherwise lose. I’d be willing to bet that if, by some chance, we see publishers willing to go up en mass, it’ll be because they’ve already gotten back twice as much by manipulating the revenue underlying the percentage. They have no reason to change in this respect and all the authors who showed their blind loyalty only reinforced their position. Here’s Penguin/Random House CEO Tom Weldon on the matter:

“Questioned on author earnings…Weldon said that PRH was always looking at how much authors were being compensated, but for the moment the 25% digital royalty rate would not be changed.”

And in this tweet from Porter Anderson about Weldon from Futurebook 14:

“Tom Weldon says that on the whole, the average royalty is 17-18%, so 25% on ebooks carries some logic.”

Nope, not gonna happen. But I’m sure your loyalty will be rewarded in other ways, like consideration in your next contract…

“Simon Lipskar, president of the literary agency Writers House, whose clients include a number of Hachette authors, welcomed news of the agreement. ‘Our writers have been suffering terribly because their sales have been significantly diminished as a result of this dispute,’ Mr. Lipskar said. He said it was possible that there would be long-term consequences for some authors because of diminished sales when it comes to negotiating new contracts.”

Oops, nevermind. Have a look at The Bookseller’s Digital Census:

“More than half (51.2%) think (ebook royalty) rates should be the same as for print books, but just over a third (36.6%) think they should be higher, and the rest (12.2%) lower.”

As our friend Mr. Weldon helpfully pointed out above, print rates are already lower than ebook rates. That means that 63.4% of publishers who responded to this census think 25% of net on ebooks is too high. The other 36% said higher than print, which they already are. It doesn’t say 36% think they should be higher than the current standard. In short, you’re not getting any movement on this without some major leverage. The kind of leverage AG and AU just gave away for loyalty and hope. Aww, isn’t that just precious? Too bad this isn’t a Nicholas Sparks novel. Come to think of it, you’ll be lucky if they don’t cut these rates. If somebody gave me 2 to 1 odds, I’d lay a c-note right now on that being exactly what will happen.

2. Authors could get really screwed on these new agency type deals

Here’s Michael Pietsch, Hachette CEO, explaining why I think this will be the case:

“Importantly, the percent of revenue on which Hachette authors’ ebook royalties are based will not decrease under this agreement.”

No, that percentage will decrease in the new standard terms in their contract language resulting from this agreement and in the contract riders you all are about to get between now and when this agreement takes effect in a couple months or so. All I know is that when a large corporation is assuring you about percentages, it’s total dollars you need to be looking at. When you read a missive from a large corporation, it’s not what they say that matters. It’s what they don’t say and how they go about not saying it. All he’s saying here is that the percentages they’re calculating your royalties on won’t change under this agreement. He’s not saying they won’t change under your agreement with them or saying your revenue itself won’t decline. There’s a second more subtle issue here too. He’s conflating their deal with Amazon to their deal with you. I’d say on purpose. One of my main complaints with the author response to this dispute was that many of them showed a lack of understanding about who was actually responsible for what to whom under these contracts. Odds are, the publisher likes it when you don’t know and will try to keep it that way.

So what does Amazon have to say about this?

“We are pleased with this new agreement as it includes specific financial incentives for Hachette to deliver lower prices, which we believe will be a great win for readers and authors alike,” said David Naggar, Vice President, Kindle.”

Specific financial incentives for lower prices? The prevailing wisdom is that means a tiered, KDP-like system with a lower cut at higher prices. But then Pietsch’s statement to their authors would seem to contradict that, but for two things. Without seeing an actual Hachette contract, we don’t how he’s defining what that “percent of revenue” as. And, as I mentioned above, the phrase “under this agreement” is problematic. There’s also another option; perhaps instead of creating a tiered system with lower rates at higher prices, this is the opposite; higher rates at lower prices. That would satisfy both Amazon’s claim of “specific financial incentives” and Hachette’s claim that revenue the author’s cut is based on isn’t decreased. Or it could be something else altogether.

My concern is the capacity Hachette (and presumably S&S) now possess over retail pricing. Publishers have shown before they’re willing to leave specific financial incentives on the table (the Apple collusion was a worse deal for them than they already had). They seem hellbent to protect the print market at all costs. Whatever those financial incentives are, they’ll leave them sitting on that table, at the very least as a windowing action for a hardcover release, to suit those ends. As an aside, you may want to check on print discount clauses in your contract and see how many of those constitute your hardcover sales. Jacking up your ebook prices to restrain sales of a format that pays you more to encourage discounted hardcover sales that pays them more (and, not coincidentally, you less) is a decided possibility here. Look out for it.

There’s an underlying assumption that if, in a vacuum, print and ebooks were allowed to compete unrestrained by and irrespective of the other, that ebooks would take sales away from print. But remember, it’s an assumption. One that hasn’t really been born out by any hard evidence, at that. But it’s the basic assumption being used to justify current thinking in ebook pricing by most publishers. The ebook must be priced high enough that it doesn’t cannibalize hardcover print sales. The higher yield on an ebook sale doesn’t matter in this context. To you, though, it sure as hell better matter. We don’t even know for sure that, if allowed to compete organically, ebooks would even cause the damage to print they claim. They’re really two separate entities; different presentations, different cost structures, different primary sales channels, even a different audience to a significant degree.

Now I do think print sales are going to decline, probably dramatically, but it won’t be ebooks causing it. It’ll be the loss of brick and mortar shelf space from the influence of online commerce, and related elements. By using price to emphasize one format’s sales over the other, they’re inherently handicapping sales of the format that, even at miserly trad rates, pays you better relative to cost to the reader. You often hear how authors make more on a hardcover than an ebook (something true largely because they’re under-paying you on the ebook) but consider, with the hardcover sale, your readers have to basically drop another $10 so you can earn an extra $1 in royalties compared with the ebook. That’s not good for anyone but the publisher and, maybe, the book stores. And it’s clearly their preferred option, one they now, reportedly, have even more power to put into action.

So what can you do to protect yourself and make certain you don’t fall into this trap of what I’m certain will be declining revenues? Well, I have a few suggestions.

Stop selling ebook and print rights as a bundle

I’ve suggested in the past that writers who’d like to prevent their publisher from handicapping one format to benefit another have a simple means of doing so; don’t sell both print and ebook rights as a bundle to the same entity. They can only coordinate if they have full rights to both. Don’t give it to them. Another option would be try to separate the contracts; go for totally separate deals for print and ebook rights. And when I say separate, I mean it; separate contracts, separate advances, separate royalty structures, reversion clauses for each independent of one another (with no pesky non compete provisions than would stop you from using reverted rights elsewhere for one if the other didn’t revert). In this way, the publisher couldn’t link the two formats, they’d have to fully exploit both formats, not limit one to prop up the other without risking losing the one they’re limiting.

Publishers will tell you they need all these rights so they can spread costs across all formats and maximize revenue with dynamic pricing. Linking two sets of rights with such divergent cost structures will inevitably lead to one getting the short end to favor the other. If publishers won’t go 100% on both, you lose. Don’t give them the option to do so. Make it clear if they want both print and ebook rights, they have to exploit both to the fullest, not prioritize one over the other. Publishers will say that supporting bookstores is crucial to them and justifies hamstringing digital. For them, maybe. For you, not so much, especially in the long term. Separate accounting and reversion clauses is one way to create a barrier that prevents them from prioritizing one over the other. A better way is don’t sell them both to the same publisher.

Will publishers do this? On the whole, hell no! So the shorter answer here is probably “self publish”.

Refuse to accept any 25% of net contracts

In the immortal words of Nancy Reagan, just say no. The 25% of net standard is far too low. If they won’t budge on it, take ebook rights off the table. If that’s a deal breaker for them, so be it. Grow a pair and walk away. Taking a bad deal is not better than no deal at all. You will regret the bad deal later. The Authors Guild can talk all it wants about loyalty but that’s not going to get any movement on this. Only actual pressure will. The Guild obviously doesn’t have the will to bring that pressure to bear. As for Doug Preston, who makes his money on big advances and willingly admits he’s not one who watches his sales, he had a lot to say about how crucial advances are in his various AU missives but jack shit to say about royalties. There’s no help coming from there and his band of jolly, powerful, influential writers, either. If 25% of net is going to go up, the only way it’s happening is if writers individually simply hold the line and refuse to sign over their rights for that price.

Will publishers be amenable? Almost certainly not but there are some who might. So, again, self publish is probably the shorter answer here, too.

Refuse to sign any life of copyright contracts

If you must sign on with a publisher, having a hard deadline they must produce in is probably a good idea. I like the notion of a five year contract. You can work in provisions for renegotiation or what have you, but if publishers want to keep control of the rights, make them actually have to pay for that privilege. As it stands now, publishers are basically paying you nothing for lifetime control of your IP. There’s not one tangible thing in these contracts that would change if they had a 5 year limit rather than forever plus 70. You’re throwing in lifetime control for essentially free. Stop it!

These kinds of contracts do exist and are becoming more common with smaller publishers. The big guys though, they treat your IP like the girl who doesn’t want you but doesn’t want anyone else to have you either. Once they get your signature, they’ve locked your IP in a box where anyone making money from it will have to go through them for the rest of your life. They’ll squat on your rights before they risk giving up on them and you finding success elsewhere. But you have to be willing to walk away, which again likely means self publish.

Watch those fuckers like a hawk

If the first three suggestions here don’t play out, which is entirely possible, there’s always a compromise. The great American philosopher Meatloaf said it best, two out of three ain’t bad. You’re likely not going to get everything you want, but you can get something better than what we have today, something you can live with. Life is all about compromise. Just don’t compromise yourself in the process.

But if you do end up signing on the dotted line, you must watch what they do with a fine tuned eye. Start tracking your books on every platform you can think of, compile data on how they’re being priced, when and where. Compare any sales data (and monies) you get from them with your own data. Get an idea of exactly where your sales are happening and how that relates to how they’re being priced. More than that, scour your contract and make certain you understand exactly what each format actually pays you (and them) and work that into your data. Basically, pay close attention.

Now what to do if you actually find something screwy, like sales being pushed to formats that pay them better and you less? I’m not sure what recourse you have, especially if you’re on a life of copyright deal. Probably none. But just showing them you’re aware of what’s going on can have a positive impact. A car mechanic has a more difficult time padding their bill when a customer comes in showing knowledge about what the problem is and what the costs to fix it should be. Publishers aren’t stupid, they adhere to the adage “You can screw all the people some of the time, or some of the people all the time, but you can’t screw all the people all the time.” The more you present yourself as educated and aware, the better your chances of avoiding the pitfalls that get those who toil in willful ignorance.

Does this sound like a lot of work just to keep a company you should trust to do right by you on the clear path? Yes it does. Will publishers appreciate you being a pain and questioning their actions? Most definitely not. But honestly, you should be doing this stuff already. The only person who’s always going to watch out for you and your interests is you. Don’t ever forget that.

Of course, you could be devoting all that time you’re spending to double check them by self publishing, but what do I know? I prefer not to get ripped off in my contractual dealings. Maybe you don’t mind about that. Do you? Prove it.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

The Case For Why Writers Need Publishers

Um…
Well, maybe…
I suppose they could…
They might…
Huh.

The End.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

A Trip to the Library’s Used Book Sale

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My haul from the library used book sale this morning.

This weekend is the Fall used book sale at my local library here in scenic Chestertown, Maryland. They have these sales twice a year, Spring and Fall. They set up a large room with hardcovers and trade paperback books piled high on a series of tables, lined up on shelves surrounding the room with more piled three rows deep underneath the tables. The hallway outside the room has another set of tables packed two layers deep with mass market paperbacks, and also has the piles of books underneath each. It takes a couple of hours to properly browse the available material. And you can’t beat the prices!

Some writers and publishers have a love/hate relationship with used books (mostly hate). I’m not one of them. It’s love all the way. If not for the availability of used books, I wouldn’t have read half of what I have in my life and the number of different authors I’ve become fans of would be demonstrably smaller. Some may not like it but when you consider none of those books are there for sale without someone having bought it full price first (or discounted as the publisher wants), all I can say is get over it! You want to know where discoverability happens? It’s right here in this room full of books so cheap as to nearly be free. It’s also why discoverability with digital is more problematic and why free is uncomfortably (for them) popular among readers; no used market to speak of.

I spent my hour this morning browsing and finally headed out with a bag of nine books that, in total, set me back roughly three times the price of the cup of coffee I bought at Royal Farms on my way home. The notion that cheap nigh-on free books is some new development from the Internet is absurd. This kind of sale has been going on for longer than all of us have been alive. It just wasn’t trackable in the ways digital is. And it’s always been a beneficial component of the industry, not a detriment. “Cheap books are good for business” is not an idea Jeff Bezos invented, despite what some would have you believe.

There are a few things I took away from this morning’s jaunt, more than just the new bag full of books I needed like a hole in the head. With a little mortar, I’m pretty sure I could build a summer home out of my to-be-read pile alone.

1. Traditional publishing produces a lot of crap

You hear this a lot about indies but, man, glancing through stacks of the stuff that’s been “properly vetted” by the great tastemakers only makes me snort louder every time I hear someone say how indispensable they are to quality literature. I don’t have any particular moral judgment on this, just try not to be the pot telling the kettle it’s too black, please.

2. Lit Fic doesn’t have much of a secondary life past first sale

I’ve been going to this sale for four years now and one of the interesting things I’ve noticed is that you see the same types of books over and over again, year after year. Something with a windswept field and a sunset on the cover, inevitably with the phrase “From the NY Times Best-selling Author” scrawled across the top, titled “Yesterday’s Tomorrows” or some such inexplicable thing. The cover blurb sounds like a story my uncle would try to tell about his troubled life, after Thanksgiving dinner and one too many shots of Southern Comfort, before I get so bored I have to fake an excuse to leave the room. These books never move. They were there four years ago and I don’t doubt they’ll still be there four years from now. Even for a buck, they can’t get them to walk out the door.

3. Nobody keeps the books from the long-time mega-bestsellers

The place is filthy with them! Nearly every table is overflowing with Pattersons and Turows and Kings and Crichtons and Clancys. And not just one of each, dozens of copies of the same books, mostly all pricey hardcovers. It makes me wonder if those books were actually bought by the readers who donated them or were given as gifts. The churn rate on high dollar hardcovers evident there just seems out of place. Who drops $25 on a book then dumps it on the library? These authors may be selling large numbers of these books but nobody’s keeping them. They’re disposal entertainment. And a damned expensive version of it at that. Again, even at $2 per hardcover, these books never move.

4. Newer, short series bestsellers are an exception

There was a half a dozen copies of the 50 Shades trilogy books combined there. There was one copy of the first Hunger Games book and that’s it. There were four copies of the Twilight series books in total. There were a grand total of zero copies of any of the Harry Potter books. No George R.R. Martin, either. People are keeping those books in ways they aren’t with either literary or mass market best sellers. I’m not sure what that means, but if I had to guess, it may speak to the completionist mentality of many readers relating to a concise several-book series that doesn’t stretch on forever into 16 or 17 volumes.

5. Romance is another exception

Nora Roberts was another mega seller whose books overran the place. The difference, though, is that they move. Nobody’s buying the Pattersons but most of Roberts’ books will be gone by Sunday. I’ve watched it happen in the past where an entire table of Roberts and Danielle Steele books that are there on the opening day are picked down to bare bones by closing. The Turows and his ilk, though, end up clustered all together, with the previously mentioned best selling lit-fic, as nearly everything else around them is picked clean. Romance seems to have the same level of churn going on but they also seem to have a vibrant life after the first sale that the mega-sellers don’t.

Now, let’s discuss price. I walked out of there with six mass market paperbacks, one trade paperback, one hardcover and one paperback that was a half-inch taller than a regular paperback. I added up the cover prices of all nine books. It was $94. I paid $5.25. That’s roughly a 95% discount. Not bad. The question, though, is would I have bought any of these books at full price? The list price on all the paperbacks was $7.99. The weird taller paperback was $9.99. The hardcover was $24.95. The only one that seemed reasonably priced to me was the trade paperback of Robert Anton Wilson’s Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy containing all three books. It was just $10.95.

The answer is that, no, I likely wouldn’t have paid those prices except for that one book. The hardcover of Joe Hill short stories looks cool and I’m excited to read it. I wouldn’t pay $25 for it. I don’t like Dean Koontz to speak of but I’ve always been morbidly curious about his Frankenstein series. There’s zero chance I’d pay the $24 list price for the three volumes but for 75 cents? Hell, I’m in on that. The Matheson and Straub books I may have gone up a few dollars on cover price and bought nicer trade editions but I wouldn’t have dropped $8 a pop on these versions, either. Ender’s Game was a lark that I couldn’t pass up for a quarter. I just saw the movie and, while it was no great shakes, it did make me curious about the book.

Which brings me to the last book I picked up this morning. Yes, I bought a Doug Preston book. I’ve never read anything he’s written (outside of his Authors United blustering. I really hope his fiction stylings are way better than that), so I’m curious. The description sounded interesting, so I thought, “What the hell? I’ll give it a go.” There was another one of his books there that sounded interesting, too. But it was a hardcover and hardcovers were $2 and I just didn’t want to pay that. (I can hear the screams of “entitled” now.) The reality is that I have no idea if I’m going to like his work. For a quarter, it’s a no-risk proposition. For $2, it’s a slightly less than no-risk. But $2 bought me that aforementioned cup of coffee. And, yes, I’m saying that fleeting cup of coffee was more important to me this morning than trying one of his books. That’s life. Get used to it.

If I read that book and enjoy it, the dynamic changes. I don’t question dropping the $2. Hell, I might even buy one (or more) new, depending on how much I like this one. But none of that happens if I don’t have access to this book for a negligible sum. At the last book sale in the Spring, I loaded up, getting about 25 books of all different stripes. Since then, there have been six new book purchases by me as a direct result of those buys. That’s six sales that would not have existed otherwise. Preston’s odds of getting me to buy one of his books new is virtually non-existant without the super-cheap used variety available to experiment and check out the lay of the land, as it were. His odds of me turning into a fan may be slim in any case, but they’re non-existant if my only choices are list price or small discount.

Even if his ebook version was $5.99, I’m not buying that. I wouldn’t pay $2 for one of his hardcovers. If the book I bought today was priced at $6, it would still be on the table where I found it. If those are my only options (or my cheapest options) he has precisely zero chance of turning me into a full paying customer. Here’s my concern with ebooks: no used versions at miniscule prices means it’s either the library or some random chance someone gives me one. Publishers have gouged libraries with exorbitant ebook prices and overly restrictive licenses. That option isn’t as viable as print either. You want discovery for ebooks to be better? Stop handicapping it. Libraries, used books for slightly above free and sharing between readers is where most discovery happens. You may think it’s bookstores but odds are most shoppers are “discovering” something there they already knew about. Discovery in that sense is more surprised to discover something you actually want is there in stock.

You can’t have things both ways. You don’t get the benefit of people putting in the legwork to discover your work and expect them to pay you for that discovery. Like most worthwhile pursuits, the back end is where the money is. I get this one for a quarter today, he may well get 5 or 6 sales over the next few years at store prices. Get rid of this one, and he gets nothing.

Cheap bordering on free books that have no direct revenue link to publishers or writers are an essential component to discovery. If we just keep progressing with ebooks as we have (and they continue to replace mmpb’s) with no used versions, limited library checkouts and prices higher or comparable to a mmpb, that discovery problem is only going to get worse. And it’s going to start to carry over into print, too, from fewer used paperbacks available like what I bought today. Subscription services can possibly mitigate some of that, but only if the catalogs are basically unlimited and the service itself isn’t too expensive or restrictive. But then, we might also be running a real risk of replacing sales with subscriptions rather than supplementing and supporting them as used books and library borrows do now. If we keep pretending books have some innate value while ignoring how, where and why the people buying them were first turned onto your work, and where they developed their notion of its value, trouble will continue to ensue.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

Published in: on November 7, 2014 at 2:32 pm  Comments (10)  
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The Two Memes of Destruction

So I’ve reached a point of not being terribly concerned about the people who are still siding with Hachette. Especially after Simon & Schuster has done what’s been touted as the impossible, quickly and painlessly reaching a deal with Amazon. It’s reportedly an Agency-type deal too, and, in my opinion, that makes what Hachette supporters have been saying look even more suspect. I know, I know, we don’t have specifics on the deal. It could be a bad one, S&S could have panicked. Or Amazon could’ve given away the farm to them (the smallest of the Big 5) to put more pressure on Hachette knowing S&S can’t share details without running afoul of Uncle Sam. That’s all possible. But I return to a theory I pointed out a while back. This fight isn’t because Amazon is trying to destroy the world one publisher at a time, Hachette may just have badly overplayed their hand by picking a poor strategy. A strategy, by the way, that needed it’s writers to lose their asses for going on six months now to be effective. Sweethearts, those folks. I’d like to think that what we’re seeing here is evidence that the Big 5 might be diverging a bit. S&S cut this deal quickly and quietly. The same S&S that had a knock down, drag out with Barnes & Noble not long ago. Harper Collins is firing up it’s own sales channel and offering *gasp* to pay writers higher royalties for sales through it. (How much higher and whether it’s sufficient is another discussion entirely.) There’s continued rumbles around various parts of Random House suggesting there’s serious discussions going on about whether to ditch DRM in some way. All these are good signs. The DOJ’s actions may have had the unintended side effect of disrupting the regular cartel-like coordination of these companies far deeper than simply in their dealings with Amazon. We may be entering a period where the Big 5 function as five totally separate entities, and that alone would make what the DOJ did worthwhile, not to mention the tens of millions readers got back after being ripped off by the illegal collusion. That was pretty cool, too. It may truly be a brand new world. Or so I hope, anyway.

But if you’d like to continue to support them, have at it. It’s your funeral. Something Patterson said recently about this being like a religious war rings true. I’m not sure why he thought it was appropriate or anything short of insulting to portray traditional supporters as terrorists. Hey, I disagree with you all quite a bit and I’m not even going there. And he’s on your side! I think many of you are misguided, confused, uninformed, stuck in a past that’s always been more myth than reality, yada, yada, yada…but I don’t think you’re jihadists. No word yet on whether Hachette is promising it’s writers 72 virgin customers for writing an Amazon hit piece, you know, suicide bombing their own credibility. It’s just ridiculous. And now we’ve got a once and future king-maker agent (so he hopes) comparing Amazon’s distribution system to ISIS. That one’s too inexplicable to even criticize. Seriously, could someone give me any clue to what the hell that means? It’s like he just picked the most negative term in the news that day. “The Big 5 offer ebola like contracts!” Two can play at that game.

But one aspect of the religious war narrative does make sense. Those folks are either true believers where facts or logic don’t apply or they’re the leaders pulling the strings of the true believers to serve their own agendas. I’ve seen it said that indies are behaving like zealots but that perceived zeal comes from, you know, actually having options now in an industry where we largely had none. The irrational arguing is mostly from the traditional side. We might be loud and angry but we also tend to have arguments that don’t Involve simply shouting at people who disagree with us “you just don’t know how publishing works” without actually explaining what they mean by that or refuting the point made that led to it. Probably because they themselves don’t really know (or want to publicly admit) how publishing really works, preferring the myth to the reality. That does seem to be an increasingly common response-type. The converse of that is the people who argue with reasons in support for their positions. I won’t always agree but I’ll always respect someone who put some thought behind what they believe, not just trot out more myths, half-truths and nonsense like Paul Krugman.

Implying that Amazon is some kind of a right wing propaganda arm because Paul Ryan’s book was available but a negative biography of the Koch brothers was restricted? Did it occur to you that Amazon wants to sell books, even during the dispute? That you and I might think he’s a clueless asshole, but Ryan’s book has a virulent tea party audience that will actually pay good money to read his nonsense? And that a Koch brothers biography may be a fantastic book and important subject matter but if the only people likely to buy it are the 12 remaining Michael Moore fans and a small subset of the folks who drive a prius and want to have the book on their coffee table so they can look socially conscious to dinner guests, why would they give it extra attention that other Hachette books aren’t getting during the dispute? Besides, haven’t you heard? Amazon tells the DOJ of a Democrat president what to do and Bezos hangs with Obama. Don’t you recall the hell the President caught for touring an Amazon warehouse and daring to say nice things about them fairly recently? But then, Krugman writes for the New York Times. Maybe he simply had to fulfill his quota of negative articles about Amazon for the quarter, and if he could toss in a little of that liberal/tea party brouhaha, all the better for click bait.

What you often see is people describing publishing as a system so incredibly complex that outsiders can’t possibly understand how it works. More than that, it’s complexity requires special exemptions from even the most basic market forces. In this world, Amazon is a monopolist, indies are simultaneously pawns used to destroy publishers and junk merchants that are devaluing books and destroying literature, and publishers are the ones defending the world from the evils of competition, innovation and progress one overpriced ebook at a time. The problem with this is that the system isn’t really all that complicated, nor difficult to understand. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find most of that complexity is an invention of the publishers themselves, or some elaborate combination of the arrangements they’ve made with distributors and retailers. Tried and true. Make a simple situation appear impossibly complicated and reinforce your position in the chain because writers and uninitiated outsiders believe they can’t possibly navigate these choppy waters or understand why things are done this way without publishers to handle that for them. That the publishers are the ones creating the chop is often overlooked. In any event, it’s bullshit. Write a book, publish a book, sell a book. It’s not complicated in the slightest. It’s not easy, mind you, but it’s not quantum physics or nuerosurgery, either. In that sense, they’re a bit like credit card service agreements, so much complicated fine print that what really is a simple circumstance becomes shrouded in confusion, which is then used to great effect to obscure the unsavory things going on in the margins.

With that in mind, here are the basic fallacies of the Seven Deadly Sins of anti-Amazon bullshit:

1. No one is “buying” ebooks. They’re licensed, not sold. You probably should understand the difference.

2. Hachette does not have a “right” to force a retailer to price like it wants against that retailers’ will. They have to successfully negotiate for that. Just ask S&S.

3. Amazon does not have a monopoly (or monopsony) on books, ebooks or anything else. They’re big with a lot of influence, no doubt. But a monopoly, they’re not. And no one has been able to point to any kind of statute that says they are.

4. Authors are not being targeted by Amazon, Hachette is. And those authors made themselves part of Hachette when they signed their contracts. Those things are usually binding folks, and they have consequences. That’s why you should read them first.

5. The only people guilty of antitrust violations are the publishers, not Amazon. Just ask the DOJ. But if Doug Preston says so then, hey, what do a bunch of antitrust prosecutors know anyway?

6. Not giving perks to a company you don’t have a contract with is not censorship, boycotting, sanctioning, disappearing or anything else other than hard-nosed business. And it’s not even that hard-nosed. Real hard-nosed business would have them booted out of Amazon’s store entirely. Plus, here’s a point of basic business relationships that no one has mentioned, giving perks to a company you don’t have a contract with just might piss off the ones you do.

7. Publishing is a cut throat industry that runs on hard market principles not fairytales perpetuated by a privileged class paid well enough to look the other way while their author brethren are ground under its wheels.

I understand why the agents, the publishers and the big money writers are fighting this. Their arguments are faulty but their motivations are obvious. They’re trying to stop the gravy train from pulling out of the station. Of course, they could just turn around and see the new high speed rail line that’s bringing in better, more efficient gravy trains every hour on the hour. No one in the industry is in a better position to take advantage of that than they are. But like Plato said, it’s easier to keep watching the shadows on the wall than to turn around and step into the light.

What I don’t understand are the writers who aren’t amongst those groups, the ones still on the outside looking to get in or the ones on the inside who can’t get out of the muddy, horse-shit coated courtyard and into to castle. Why are they supporting a system that’s feeding off of them as the foundation for everyone else getting paid? I’m thinking there’s a confluence of two memes that have always been destructive but is becoming more apparent just how catastrophic they can be.

One is “I Just Want To Write” which endorses pushing the business side of your career away, delegating it to “professionals” so you can focus on writing and cashing the checks. The other is the “Crucible Of Rejection”, the odd fetishization of struggling through years of being told no to get inside those gates. For some on the outside, it’s always the next query that’ll be the one that works. All they have to do is tweak their book a little and they’re in. Any day! Can’t walk away now! The myth tells us that adapting to this rejection forges us into better writers. The truth is it forges us into writers better suited to their commercial purposes. There’s a huge difference. For the more fortunate, they’ve gotten in, but the business specifics are totally in the hands of their publisher and their agent. They don’t know what’s really going on, and it’s not so easy to burn that bridge after celebrating your persistence and years of work to get there, even if there bears little resemblance to what you thought it was. It’s hard to walk away after you’ve put in that kind of effort. Even harder when you’re not getting accurate information and what you are getting is coming from people who have agendas of their own they’re trying to fulfill irrespective of their contractually obligated responsibilities to you. How many publishing contracts come and go quickly and quietly without the author even knowing what was done for the book, what happened and why?

All I can say to those folks, speaking from my own experiences with publishers, if you think you’re starting to smell some duplicity, look to the people in your own backyard before you start sniffing out the guy across town. It’s far more likely to be coming from nearby. The stench is coming from inside the house!

I suspect these memes, and their blinder-producing results, are why you see the argument made so often that books aren’t like other products, or books aren’t widgets or what have you. You don’t have to defend what you’re advocating as feasible in the market or financially viable if you throw the baseline of actual business sense out with the bath water at the earliest possible convenience. Perhaps the most ridiculous argument I’ve seen springboard lately is the idea that publishing isn’t profitable or profitable enough that anyone outside these current set of publishers would be interested in it. Part of that argument is an implication that these pubs are being altruistic by staying in it themselves. It’s total nonsense. My entire working experience across two decades conflicts that point. You also generally see that argument being made by someone who’s collecting a huge check courtesy of the industry. Publishing is, has been and will continue to be, in various forms, an extraordinarily profitable industry, with or without this particular set of publishers, writers and retailers.

Every time I see that line of thought, I can’t help but automatically assume the person speaking has no real-world argument to make, just more pixie dust and fairy tales. It’s kind of sad, too, that they’re “concern” for culture is coming during what is far and away the best time for communication in the history of civilization (no exaggeration). It’s never, at any point, ever been easier or cheaper (right down to free) to get anything you want to say out to anyone you want to say it to across virtually the entire globe. I think that shows the lie in their argument. It’s all about money to them and nothing else. To be clear, that’s a perfectly fine position to take, just don’t bullshit me with cultural concerns when it’s your paycheck that’s driving the argument. If we remove the commercial aspect altogether, it’s still the greatest time in mankind’s entire history if you’re trying to get your words and ideas out to the world.

That’s what I would offer for writers to take away from this. Open your eyes and take a look around. There are opportunities emerging everywhere every day. What we can do today and the numbers of people we can reach is truly amazing, unprecedented in human history. If you get so wrapped up in worrying about Amazon, you’ll miss it. Don’t get hung up on the whines and howls of folks who are just pissed that the world moved their cheese. You want a career in writing? Go and take one. Dump the bullshit memes of the past and get down to actual business, the kind those memes and the folks who propagate them have blocked writers from pursuing for decades going on a century.

Don’t make the mistake of previous generations of writers and think any of these people are your friends. Amazon’s not, nor is Barnes & Noble, nor any of the 2,000 small bookstores. They offer opportunities in various forms and shapes and sizes. But just like the opportunities publishers offer, they come with a cost. If you don’t know that cost, one day, a hefty bill may come due. And don’t weep for the agents and publishers, either. They were never your friends, though they liked to imply as much while they kept you ignorant of everything except the one act you do that directly makes them money. All they want is your book and the less you are involved past that, the better for them. Don’t wait for one of those assholes, whether they hail from a publishing house, an agency or a retailer, to come down from on high and grant you the keys to the kingdom. Odds are, you’ll be dust in your grave long before that ever happens. Requiescat in pace.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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