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

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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 Kathleen Hale Story

About a week ago, I started writing a piece in response to someone I got into a spirited discussion with in an article’s comments section, complete with accusations that I don’t know what I’m talking about. That comment always annoys me because, for one, the person lobbing it has usually illustrated some heavy ignorance of their own, and two, experiences and circumstances vary so what I’m talking about may or may not match what you’re talking about, so I try not to toss that particular word grenade if I can help it. Ultimately, I was called out with a bullet point list, no less, so I felt the need to respond.

That was before I heard about the Kathleen Hale nonsense. If you haven’t heard about that, read up, in her own words. Then go read this nice rundown and timeline of Hale’s own description juxtaposed with what evidence exists. This is disturbing not just because the author seems oddly detached from the severity of her actions, but far too many in the writing community have actually justified and defended her clearly inappropriate (and fucking epically creepy) actions. Her enablers include some pretty recognizable names, including some that have no business whatsoever justifying anyone’s actions in dealing with bad reviews, Anne Rice. This is a case study in how not to behave. And not simply as an author, but as a goddamned human being. Stalking people is not ok. Running background checks on people who criticize you is not ok. Using an innocent event designed to celebrate books in your genre for your own private agenda is not ok. Hunting down the home address of a book reviewer you don’t know to go there and confront them is not ok. Calling them repeatedly (or at all) at work is not ok. Snooping around at what’s in their car or looking in their windows is not ok. There is nothing that reviewer could have posted anywhere online about Hale’s book or her writing, no matter how insistent or repetitive or nasty, that legitimizes any of those actions.

Anyone who does think that needs to put themselves in the blogger’s place for a minute. Say you wrote a negative review under a pseudonym for a book from an author you don’t know. Say the book offended you to the point that you were particularly blunt in your treatment of it. Say that author tries to get in touch with you and you’ve been avoiding doing so. Then say you walk outside one day to find a copy of that author’s book just laying on your front doorstep. Do you:

A. Freak the hell out
B. Buy a new, stronger deadbolt
C. Buy a shotgun and some shells
D. Call the police
E. All of the above

What you don’t do is think, “Gee, I bet there’s a totally innocent explanation for why this person who feels wronged by me managed to hunt down my real identity and my home address and visit here without my knowledge or invitation. Maybe she just wants to have tea and discuss the finer points of literature. Sure, she could have just emailed but I appreciate her going that extra mile.”

What Hale did is unethical, unprofessional, inappropriate and possibly criminal. But overall, it’s wrong. Just wrong. No excuses need apply.

I’m not the type to say you should never engage your detractors. I’ve rather happily engaged numerous detractors over the years and I’ll continue to do so. That’s the way this post began, as a response to being called out online. That’s why I put that piece aside for a while when I read about Hale. Here was a person who took engaging their detractors to near-felony level. I’m just trying to enjoy a good spirited discussion. The last thing in the world I can imagine doing is hunting someone down and confronting them in real life at their home or place of business. That’s just 22 cards short of a full deck kinda crazy.

Her actions made me question whether or not I’d even finish the other piece but then I thought better of it (coming soon). I’m only arguing the relative merits of various economic theories of publishing. I’m not even certain I actually care about anything personal or private about the side on the other end of the argument. It’s a thought exercise designed to clarify, defend and support my opinions while trying to understand conflicting ones. I do that all the time. I’m not going to let a writer who couldn’t control her obsessions and insecurities enough to avoid super-creepy behavior stop me now.

But Hale’s thing stuck with me. I’m still having trouble understanding how anyone could defend her. Interestingly, there have been many pieces written, including this one, that dug around online, reading things Hale had written, finding out about her connections in the publishing community (and there are some doozies), and trying to find any social media interactions that may apply. What no one has done is use their position to hunt down her address, repeatedly call and harass her, show up at her house, or snoop around in her private space. If someone has/does that, they’d be widely recognized as a psycho. And potentially dangerous. That is precisely what Hale did when she escalated things from online interactions to in-real-life ones. Read her own detailing of the story again. There can be no doubt that Hale is 100% responsible for that escalation. Her own words portray Harris as a person engaging in a pattern specifically designed to avoid her.

There are three basic elements used in her defense/justification that I feel need addressing.

1. The Blogger’s Anonymity

Blythe Harris is a fake name and persona. Duh! You know how I know that? Like sands through the hourglass, no one who’s not an heiress or a soap opera character or both is named Blythe. (Cue someone named Blythe emailing me in 3, 2, 1…) And so what if it is? This is publishing, for God’s sake! Half the shit you’re reading is presented under a fake name and/or persona. Writers use pseudonyms for lots of reasons. Some have had bad career breaks under their own name, some want to try a different genre/style, some want privacy, some are trying to skirt non-compete clauses, some don’t want to be associated with what they write for some personal reason or other. Many writers of romance and erotica have used false names for years, including the earlier-mentioned Anne Rice. And Harris, whether you like it or not, is a writer. You don’t crank out hundreds of reviews and have a blog dedicated to them without being one.

I actually saw someone in a comments thread list a bunch of writers who used their real names and no fewer than three of them were psudonyms, including Mark Twain. Is it possible for a person to be so ignorant of probably the most famous pseudonym in American Literature? Mark Twain wasn’t just a false name, either. He was a character, a constructed persona by Samuel Clemens trotted out in public appearances, stage shows and in his prose. The real man was a bitter, depressive sort, not the charming, cigar-chomping master of wit in a white suit we all know.

Each and every one of us create the persona we want to be in many ways. Does it matter if we named ourselves or if someone else gave us those names. Criticizing Harris for using a pseudonym is nonsensical in the context of writing. More than that, it’s completely and totally ignorant of the history of the art itself. Also keep in mind, both Stephen King and J.K. Rowling have used pseudonyms with fake author photos and back stories in the past, to name just two of many. In fact, Rowling herself started using the initials J.K. in part to intentionally obscure her gender. Was she catfishing us all?

There’s also another reason someone may want to use a false identity to front their public persona, a reason that seems perfectly conducive to this case; to protect themselves from obsessives and stalkers.

2. Bullying/Career Destroying

This is a big one. Those nasty bloggers are just out to destroy your career, one tweet that 75 people will see at a time. And I’d be willing to bet a large percentage of those people belong to their own little insular echo chambers. Look at the way most of these things start, with the author or what have you wading into their space like a bull in a china shop. That’s what Hale admitted to doing here that got her labeled by people other than Harris as a BBA (badly behaving author). There’s a huge subgroup in publishing today that fully absorbed in fighting this so-called bullying and career destroying meme. Does online bullying exist? Certainly and it’s reprehensible and should be fought. But this career destroying stuff? That’s not the bully doing that. They don’t have the power. If it happens at all, it’s the author doing it to themselves.

Look, the Amazon/Hachette dispute has been near-daily news for the better part of six months now. It’s shown up in all the major media outlets, big name celebrities have drawn attention to it. In the circle of people I tend to flow in online, everybody knows about it; all the details, the principles, the circumstances surrounding it. It’s pervasive in that world. But outside that circle? Not one person I know in real life has even heard of Hachette, let alone any dispute. The vast majority of readers don’t either. If something like that, something that’s publicized in major outlets by brand name people every day, doesn’t raise awareness in regular people, you think a Goodreads review and a few snarky substweets, no matter how nasty, is going to make a dent? The only way any of that garbage can have power over you or your career is if you give it to them. Hale did that here in spades. The career destroying phase she was concerned about? She created that all on her own.

Now if you’d like to discuss bullying, let’s look at how Hale characterized Harris in her article:

“Recent studies have had dark things to say about abusive internet commenters – a University of Manitoba report suggested they share traits with child molesters and serial killers.”

I wonder if they share any traits with obsessive stalkers? There is little to no corroboration for what Hale accused Harris of doing. Here is the Goodreads discussion following Harris as she tried to read the book. There’s no career destroying there. I see someone reading a book somewhat analytically. If I had to characterize it, I’d say Harris was being a little nitpicky, but then I haven’t read the book. It looks to me like she hit something early on that struck her the wrong way, likely because, like all readers, she was viewing the text through the lens of her own experience. As she progressed, she couldn’t shake the negative feelings and slowly turned into hate-reading the book, actively searching for things to be pissed about, until, finally, she quit altogether. I don’t do much hate-reading of novels but I do hate-watch some movies now and then, and “fuck this” is an absolutely accurate response to walking away from one of those.

The thing is, as the writer, your intent behind the work is no more important than the reader’s interpretation of it. In fact, your intent is simply just another interpretation. Everyone who reads your work will see it in their own way, and every one is valid to themselves. You don’t control how your work is received, good, bad or indifferent. That’s not a bad thing. In my opinion, it’s one of the features of writing; your story can mean totally different, totally valid things to completely different people. That’s amazing to me. If something someone sees in your work concerns you, the proper thing to do is go back and look at your work from their point of view to get a feel for why they made such an interpretation. That’s what professionals do. Spoiled children throw little tantrums, become obsessive and go to extreme lengths to get the satisfaction they believe they are entitled. I’ll let the reader decide which one they think Hale’s behavior fits.

3. It Wasn’t Stalking, It Was Journalism

“This came with its fair share of [criticism] from people who didn’t read the piece and have little-to-no understanding of journalism.”
Kathleen Hale on the response to her piece.

When I first saw this suggestion, in an article touting Hale’s appearance as a guest of honor at a New York literary festival, I got pissed. It’s the precise point when this piece escalated from a few blunt tweets to an italicized prologue to the other piece I was writing into this full-blown rant. Just for the sake of making myself clear on this, get the fuck outta here with that nonsense! This is not in any way, shape or form journalism! It’s a confessional designed to elicit sympathy for her while demonizing someone else. And she’s practically gloating about how clever she’s being while doing it. Harris isn’t really relevant to this story, just as the object that drove Hale’s actions and now unburdening. It doesn’t seem to matter that we have no corroboration. Her story hit it’s mark with certain people who were only too ready to lap it up and defend it to the hilt.

For one thing, this story is about herself. It only pretends to be seeking any kind of understanding, and does so at the expense of another human being who had the misfortune of transgressing against the writer. It’s not journalism, it’s a diary entry. You don’t get to excuse hunting her down because you can slap the badge of The Guardian on your chest and call it journalism. It’s a personal vendetta. She admits it’s an obsession that everyone she talks to tells her to stay away from. So, conveniently, she finds a way to justify it, courtesy of The Guardian. “I’m being a journalist so it’s ok that I’m running a background check on a stranger!”

Two questions, if this is really journalism. One, did you verify and document the evidence for your allegations? If not, in some places, so I hear, they call that libel. Look it up. And two, is the Michael Rich you sited as expert medical opinion in any way related to your soon to be father in law Frank Rich and your fiance Simon Rich? Disclosure is another word you might want to learn if you’re going to play act as a reporter.

But, of course, she wasn’t reporting. She used The Guardian as an affirmative defense for her stalkiness, just like she used the Debut Author Bash of YA Reads to drag Harris back into her little vortex and misrepresented herself to get her home address. That’s not journalism either. It’s manipulative and self serving. This was an event to celebrate her work and the work of other authors in her genre and she cynically used that to further her own agenda of getting satisfaction from Harris. The editor who gave her the address clearly is upset and feels betrayed. Plus, she shows some actual contrition in her statement of the type Hale’s article sorely lacks.

“Hale said although the situation is difficult, it led to a rewarding moment in her career, being the third most read author on The Guardian two consecutive days.”

And there you have it. It’s all about the attention. Doesn’t matter how you get it and shame need not appy. It’s narcissism writ large. Maybe when she writes the sequel about her difficulties during the civil lawsuit she’s angling for, she can make it to number two! Aim high! All her nonfiction work seems to be in the same vein; they all contain an uncomfortable amount of oversharing personally embarrassing details. There’s only two reasons for someone to do that repeatedly; a genuine sense of contrition and wanting to help others avoid their mistakes or to manipulate people. From what I’ve seen, put me on Team Manipulate.

“If I can talk about how the Internet cultivates obsession in a way that reads like a horror story, then I’ve done my job.”

Well, she’s certainly done her job here. The only thing is, in this horror story, she’s asking us to set aside the behavior of the machete wielding psycho because the other kids were mean to him at camp when he was a boy. The thing that struck me when I first read her piece was how much it was like a short story I could’ve written. A person becomes obsessed and spirals out of control. The only difference is my story would end in something tragic. That’s what this story actually is. It doesn’t happen all the time or even most of the time, but often enough, this tale ends with someone in jail, a hospital bed or on a slab in the morgue. And I have no impression Hale has even the slightest understanding of how dangerous a road she was on. Her intentions may have been good (I’m doubtful of that) but I understand the Road to Hell is some fine traveling, too, until you reach the overpass.

“Kathleen wrote something that was extremely real, honest, and ugly, and she did so with an incredible amount of grace, candor, and humor, and I do truly believe that the people who feel differently have not read the piece.”
Hale’s friend and editor Haley Mlotek

I think both Hale and her editor, when they say that the people who are criticizing her didn’t read her article, are acting under the impression that she earned some kind of points for admitting her sins. But look at it this way, if I told you I stomped a puppy to death on the way home from work today but I feel kinda bad about it, would I be a better person for being open and forthright about my actions and feelings or would I simply be a piece of shit for having done them in the first place? Or an even bigger piece of shit for now going out of my way to further draw attention to the extraordinarily shitty thing I just did? Admitting you did something and saying, half-heartedly, maybe, it might be bad is not the same thing as taking responsibility for your conduct. Especially when you’re doing it in the service of demonizing the very person you did said shitty thing to.

The ugly little implication here is if Hale wasn’t being totally honest or if there is no corroboration because it didn’t happen the way Hale presented it, that means Harris fits very neatly and indisputably into another category: victim. (For the record, I think Harris is a victim even if she did everything Hale claimed plus a few extra “fuck you” Facebook messages on top.) As such, Hale’s article itself is further victimizing her, as are all the people repeating Hale’s accusations as fact. They’re dangerously close to blaming or shaming the victim or the venerable “she was asking for it” defense. Oddly, that very attitude was one of the complaints Harris had about some of the characterization in Hale’s book. When in doubt, look for patterns in someone’s behavior. Patterns often surface unconsciously and reveal all, whether the person wants them to or not.

Hale is fortunate she’s a woman. If she had a penis and had written the exact same article word for word, changing the pronouns accordingly, the only people coming to her (now his) defense would be the GamerGate assholes. Somehow, I suspect that wouldn’t be her desired audience. But her actions have more in common with their particular brand of vileness than with the actual victim of a bullying campaign. Just remove the gender, and they’re two peas in a pod.

What About Hachette’s Responsibility?

Remember that Amazon/Disney dispute that was supposed to be yet another harbinger of the doom Amazon was looking to bring down upon all its suppliers? Well, that’s over. Or at least negotiated to a point Amazon was willing to reinstate preorders and such on Disney products. So much for the doom. It lasted a little under two months.

There’s also this little tidbit from the same Wall Street Journal article:

“A similar dispute between Amazon and Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros. in the spring lasted several weeks. Warner Bros. movies became available for preorder again in June after the studio and Amazon had made significant progress toward a deal, but hadn’t finished ironing out details.”

So that one, that I’d never even heard about before, lasted just a few weeks and preorders were made available as part of the negotiation. What do you know? Let’s also not forget the attempt by Hachette a couple months ago to buy the catalog of Perseus Books, with Ingram absorbing their distributor business, that failed miserably when Hachette, who spearheaded the deal, failed to negotiate an adequate end with either of the other two parties.

Is it time to consider, rather than a victim of some evil Amazon publisher-destroying plot, Hachette may just be really bad at business? Other companies involved in terse negotiations with Amazon, involving many of the same tactics, have emerged none-the-worse-for-wear in a matter of weeks. This has been dragging on with Hachette for almost a year, the past six months of which involving things like lessened stocking and no preorders. Those other two media companies both reportedly got out from under Amazon’s tactics through negotiation. Hachette has taken a hard line stance in negotiating with Amazon (and to this point, an horrifically ineffective one that’s looking more misguided by the day.) It really might be as simple as Hachette just kinda sucking at this.

With all the chatter about the responsibilities Amazon has (or some feel they’re supposed to have, anyway) I got to thinking, doesn’t Hachette have any responsibilities here? Nobody seems to be asking that question. Do you think their parent company cares about their excuses about Amazon, especially when they see other companies settle similar disputes quickly and relatively quietly? Apple’s shareholders didn’t give a damn about how supposedly evil Amazon is when they just filed a lawsuit against them to recoup damages from their illegal collusion with publishers. Why aren’t Hachette’s authors throwing an unholy fit? Maybe we’ve been reading the phrase “special snowflake” all wrong. Maybe the authors are trying to get concessions out of Amazon because they know the company they’re contracted too isn’t competent enough to get them on their own.

In any circumstance, I don’t see how Hachette can be absolved of its responsibilities to the writers under contract to them, no matter how many name brand authors keep mouthing off in the absolute wrong directions. I ran across this letter to Hachette by writer Blair MacGregor yesterday. It’s from early July, just after the first Authors United letter hit, but you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t look at the date. It’s oddly prescient and, in my opinion, spot on.

In it, MacGregor raises four important points, each a different area where Hachette can take action in regards to its responsibilities to the writers they represent (and likely should have already). Read the entire letter, it’s well worth it, but I’m just going to focus on a few points here:

“When I read through the latest round of open letters telling Amazon what they ought to do to support Hachette writers during your negotiations, I thought it exceedingly odd no one had written to you.”

She’s not alone there. I’m at the point where it’s far past exceedingly odd and getting into negligence and/or intentional obfuscation. There is zero logical business reason why someone, anyone under contract to Hachette hasn’t lit a raging fire under their ass to get something done by now.

“You see, your writers are contracted directly with you, and not at all with Amazon, even though many target Amazon with their urging to settle disputes. I get the impression you prefer it that way, which is an odd preference as it assumes you, Hachette, have no ability to support your writers and fulfill your contractual obligations without Amazon’s approval.”

Exactly. I would add, however, that what I think they’re lacking is the will to support their writers, not the ability. And, honestly, many of those same writers are giving them a free pass and, in doing so, applying no pressure or giving them even the slightest reason to lift a finger to fulfill their contractual obligations, as she put it.

“When ethical businesses in your position struggle — with negotiations, with collections, or with other cash flow problems — they don’t send their contractors out to solve the problem for them. Instead, they take care of their obligations to their employees and contractors while making every effort possible to resolve the issue.”

Yup, that’s what ethical businesses do every day. What’s that tell you about where Hachette stands on the ethical scale? Remember, this letter was from three months ago, nearly as long as both Disney and WB’s negotiations combined. What have they gotten done in that time? Zip. Now he gets to the four areas where she believes they should act:

“First, your response to Amazon’s offer to participate in a royalty fund for impacted writers is puzzling if your desire is to care for your writers. Requiring a total resolution be reached with Amazon before discussion on royalties takes place might feel like a powerful move, but exposes the priority you place upon your writers.”

It looks even more egregiously bad now that we have direct examples of both Disney and Warner Brothers getting immediate actions out of Amazon during negotiations. And that’s not to mention MacMillan accepting a nearly identical deal during its last negotiation. Why the authors didn’t use Amazon’s offer to get Hachette to act to mitigate the damage done to themselves and their fellow authors is lost on me. Their irrational and indiscriminate hatred of Amazon is blinding them to both their own and their fellow writers’ interests. But they shouldn’t have had to. Hachette showed zero interest in taking Amazon up on this. Worse still, they have done absolutely nothing on their own, nor did they even try any sort of counter proposal. Someone should mention to Hachette that negotiations typically involve some form of actual negotiating.

“Second, disclose precisely how you are fulfilling the just-in-time orders Amazon is placing with you. I assume your distribution centers aren’t set up for small and swift shipments, but surely a multinational company such as yours has someone in its distribution department able to cobble together a temporary remedy.”

This is spot on, too. If you want us to believe Amazon is why books are shipping slower, prove it. Show us that you’re getting those orders out ASAP and they’re not sitting on someone’s desk in your warehouse for two weeks. I’ve only seen one writer inquire about these shipments, and here’s how that turned out:

“Hachette has continually assured us all orders were shipping “in a timely manner” and Amazon was to blame for placing small orders. We’ve asked for copies of the purchase orders and confirmation of the shipment dates from my publisher but have been told, ‘It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.'”
–From Digital Book World

Third party…for his own book shipments! Dripping with concern for writers, right there!

“Third, put some effort into promoting your writers who aren’t your top sellers since they are the ones who stand to lose the most—and most fear that loss.”

I’m totally down with it but they won’t do this when times are good. A snowball has a better chance of wintering successfully in Hell than Hachette ponying up to promote non-mega-selling authors. Still though, not only should they be because of this situation, but because it’s the right thing to do all the time.

“Lastly—and most importantly—publicly and firmly assure your writers that their future contract negotiations will not be based upon lower sales numbers that result from your prolonged negotiations.”

Yes, yes, a million times, yes! This should be the first question anyone asks Hachette from now until the end of time; will you guarantee not to use the lower sales figures during this dispute to drop or otherwise force better deals with writers for yourself? All day, every day. Even Hachette’s most virulent supporters just assume it’s a foregone conclusion that they will employ such unforgivably sleazy actions as this. They’re all over Amazon about the preorders because they’re afraid of the punitive actions Hachette will use those figures to take against them. Yet from writers to Hachette…crickets.

“It’s almost as if no one believes you’d consider it in your best interest to mitigate the damage writers believe will be done to them. It’s almost as if all those urging Amazon to act are far more confident in Amazon’s likelihood of listening than they are in yours. After all, none of them have yet asked you to do…well, much of anything, really.”

Yeah, almost. I think she’s on to something here. Perhaps no one’s pressuring Hachette because they know how futile it is. Whatever the reason, it’s high time that many, many someone’s start not only asking, but demanding Hachette do something here for its writers, if nothing else. Complain about Amazon all you like, but Hachette is directly responsible to the writers it has under contract. And right now, they’re pissing down all of your backs and telling you it’s raining.

You all are worried about your next contract if you rock the boat or make any noise about this? Let me ask you, if this continues to drag on through Christmas, book buying’s most wonderful time of the year, what next contract is it you think is going to be there? Unless you’re a superstar, there won’t be a next contract for you to be concerned about. Speak now or forever hold your peace.

UPDATE: Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader just pointed out to me that Perseus Books, the company Hachette swung and missed at, recently struck a new ebook deal of its own with Amazon. According to the report, the deal included not just their own catalog but all the books in their distributor business that were set to be spun off to Ingram in the failed acquisition.

Talk about dodging a bullet! If that sale had gone through, all of those Perseus books would be caught up in the same vortex as the rest of Hachette’s catalog right now. Instead, they’re selling ebooks unencumbered. It’ll be interesting to see if we get any information on what the terms of the deal are, but there can’t be too many smiles around Hachette’s campfire right now.

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

Pissing Contests Can Be Fun, Just Not Into The Wind

Here’s something I’ve been wondering lately. Amazon’s a monopoly, right, so we’re told? They had a 90% market share in ebooks 5 years ago. Today, estimates of their market share in ebooks range from 55-65% or so. Do monopolies typically lose 25-35% of their market share over 5 year periods? Yet we talk about Amazon today as if they’re more dominant than ever. Maybe they are, but something about that doesn’t seem quite right. It looks to me like that 90% was, as the sports analytics guys like to say, the result of a small sample size (very young market and they were the only player going all out after it). But that would mean they’re not actually a monopoly but a highly competitive company who grabbed a commanding lead in the market. And a commanding lead is a far cry from a dominant monopoly. Just ask Barnes & Noble.

What I find interesting is this assumption that Amazon will become abhorrent, they’ll destroy publishing, tear the fabric of time and space, and we’ll all suffer with no recourse forever. Anybody actually watching the lifespans of these tech companies? The pace of everything has sped up. We’re in a world where an unknown startup can become a beast in a few short years. But it’s also one where the beasts can fall on their faces just as fast. Nobody is afraid of Microsoft’s market power anymore. I hear Yahoo is getting into TV shows these days. In fact, that’s the first thing I’ve heard about Yahoo in months. AOL still exists, apparently. At least they pop up now and then to piss away money on some new acquisition they’ll proceed to run into the ground. When was the last time Google did something truly innovative that didn’t turn out to be all hype? Even Apple just dropped billions on a questionably-profitable headphone maker to get their hands on a flailing music store and seems more interested in protecting what they have rather than continuing the innovation they earned it with in the first place.

I think this reflects a bit of the problematic thinking that’s infecting the industry. Self published writers aren’t real writers or they’re disgruntled trad rejects or they’re a substandard slush pile gumming things up with bargain basement prices. They don’t truly believe any sizable numbers of indies can produce work as professionally or more so than they can. It’s unthinkable to them. They have the same problem with Amazon. They don’t understand where Amazon came from and they have no idea how to deal with them. I feel extremely safe in saying that when real competition comes to Amazon, and it inevitably will, it’ll be another publishing outsider that brings it, someone who can and will find weaknesses in Amazon to exploit when they appear. I’m also certain that publishers won’t like them any more than Amazon, either. Publishers would clearly rather force all retailers into the party line that’s escorting B&N on a slow walk to the bankruptcy judge. They don’t really want genuine competition with Amazon to emerge because what that requires isn’t going to bring back the good old days for them, either.

I watched (most) of that Amazon hate panel at the New York Public Library the other day. The most telling comment of all, I think, was when one of the panelists said that tech companies needed to learn manners. By that, I took it to mean why aren’t they acting like everyone else? Don’t they know they’re supposed to be making as much as they can squeeze out of readers, not us? And it’s just rude of them to undermine our leverage with writers by giving them real options and a sizable cut. Where are your manners? Get with the program, already!

Which brings me to the dueling petitions circulating, one from traditionally published writers “not taking sides” by bashing the hell outta Amazon and a response to that by independent writers. The former was ridiculous and embarassing, I thought, and it showcases either the ignorance of these authors to actual business dealings above their station or is simply a disingenuous attack designed to protect their personal paychecks. Either way, I thought it was unseemly. How can you claim to not be involved in the dispute in a document specifically designed to inject yourself into the matter and pressure one side over the other? It’s dishonest.

The latter petition, while I agree with much of what it said, did come off a bit preachy to me. I totally understand the desire to counter what you (and I) see as the slanted misinformation and fear-mongering going on out there. It’s hard to understate the freedom writers have now. We can literally do anything we can think up, produce it and distribute it to a wider audience than ever before and not have to sell our souls, rights and most of the proceeds to a middleman. It’s so obviously beneficial that I often wonder how there are writers who don’t see this or worse yet, seem to actually be afraid of it. We now live in a world where it’s possible to make money directly on our copyrights without being forced to give them up in perpetuity. That’s a huge development, and something that was very nearly impossible to consider a decade ago.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that some writers haven’t grasped the full implications of this yet. It’s a major change in conditions that had been static for decades, if not longer. How much longer they can continue to ignore it is the question. I suspect many of these writers have the unfaithful girlfriend or boyfriend problem, with their publisher playing the roll of significant other. They suspect he or she is cheating on them, have bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence that something isn’t right but they don’t want to admit it to themselves because admitting it means a necessary major upheaval in their lives. So they rationalize away the concerns staring them right in the face. Given the sometimes irrational and conflicting nature of that petition, and other similar sentiments I’ve seen recently, I suspect many are at the point where they’re going to come home from work early one day soon to find him/her in bed with someone else and not be able to avoid that particular elephant in the room any longer.

As far as the indie petition goes, while I like and appreciate the sentiment behind it, I just don’t think it needed to be done. I’m all for calling out bullshit, but to do it in a similar format with a bit of a rah rah attitude, even if it’s totally justified, gives the people who ought to be paying attention a ready excuse to dismiss it. To rationalize away finding a pair of panties that don’t belong to you under the passenger seat of your boyfriend’s car, as it were. “They must be his sister’s.” Uh huh. The original letter was a back patting exercise, preaching to a choir that’s not currently going to be convinced of anything other than what they already believe. Unfortunately, I think the indie petition is the same sort of thing. My opinion is who gives a damn what those other authors think? Let ’em look foolish, let ’em slap their names on something that’s fairly easily refuted and, frankly, not particularly well written. When the entity you’re yelling at is more responsible for making you money than the one you’re giving most of the proceeds, you’re in for a sizable wake up call in short order. I’m not convinced slapping them in the face with their own format will do anything but make them more entrenched in their beliefs, no matter how well intentioned or how clearly we see they’re setting themselves up to be burned.

You can’t stop people from making their own mistakes. Our copyrights have direct benefits to us now, something they essentially never had before, and that alone makes them more valuable than ever. Yet royalty rates are anywhere from “meh” to outright terrible. All reports also indicate advances are shrinking as well. At what point does it become obvious that what you’re giving up far exceeds what you’re getting in return? The man who hired me at my very first job in publishing used to talk about the law of diminishing returns all the time. He was usually talking about circulation, the point where the costs of increasing it would outweigh the return you got from it. That’s where we’re heading with publishers, I think. The cost of doing business with them is outweighing the return. A much larger cut of the proceeds should be the very least we should expect from publishers but we’re getting the opposite with threats of even harsher cuts in the future. And by much larger, I’m talking double or triple what they pay now, at least. And none of this lifetime copyright, or non compete, or discount clause nonsense anymore. It’s not my or any writers’ job to leave money and control of my career on the table to lifeline your business infrastructure because you can’t afford to pay the freight. Writers’ offer more value than ever, Amazon’s retail platform offers more value than ever. Publishers’ problem is that they’re one of the few in the loop who’s bringing less value today than a decade ago. Basic rules of business would dictate that when you become less valuable, you can no longer command as big a paycheck. What’s at issue here is that publishers and some of the writers still being paid by them as they always have, don’t truly understand their value has fallen off and continues to do so. Look no further than the fact that ebook profits (built on low standard royalties to authors, btw) are the only thing keeping many of these publishers out of the red. If the traditional business model is so valuable, then why are your profits basically gone without the contributions of the non-traditional?

Writers on the whole were never really compensated for giving up our rights anyway. For most, they had no value at all without a publisher, and you giving them up was a required condition. Writers were paid based on sales. The rights were a necessary toll basically sacrificed for access to the market. The value of those rights to us have increased while the rewards of signing them over have gotten smaller. Yelling at Amazon isn’t going to change that. Do you think if Hatchette gets higher prices, you’ll see any more of that money? Will they up standard royalties? Chances are you’re on a contract where the more successful your book is, the more money you’ve left on the table. Go back and do the math. If Hatchette gets what it wants and mitigates the competitive impact of Amazon, do you think that makes them more or less likely to improve writer compensation? And given the nature of these publishers, generally working in lockstep, what one settles into, they all likely will shortly thereafter.

The question in my mind isn’t why aren’t indies rooting for Hatchette, it’s why aren’t trad writers rooting for Amazon? (Well, the question after “why should we be rooting for either?” anyway. What we should be doing is advocating for the best possible treatment from all sides.) I’ll tell you why, because Hatchette owns your rights. If they run themselves into the ground, you’re contractually obligated to eat a face full of dirt with them. If Amazon (or any other retailer) destroys themselves, I just move on to another one. Amazon doesn’t own me. Hatchette (and other publishers) do own you. If you can’t see the inherent long-term danger in that, and you obviously can or else you wouldn’t be bitching at Amazon rather than your own publisher, then no petition, no logic, no facts, no amount of fisking is going to help you.

By the way, your letter basically demands Amazon cut a deal immediately and go back to discounting your books. Do you realize it’s highly likely Hatchette wants the ability to restrict Amazon’s discounting as part of any kind of agreement? How’s do you expect that’ll work out for you? “You should settle so you can go back to doing what a settlement with my own publisher will prevent you from doing.” Good luck with that.

One part of the indie petition I liked very much was the thank you to readers. We should all do that far more loudly and often than we do. But readers don’t care about this conflict. Most don’t know Hatchette from Heineken. They do know Amazon and seem to like them in overwhelming numbers. No petition from a handful of best selling and/or famous authors is going to change that, especially when the argument behind it is higher prices for them. Supporting culture and literature against cold corporate business sounds great until you say, “Oh, and all our ebooks are going to be $12.99 from now on.” Good luck with that, too.

I believe very much in the “look where your bread is buttered” school of thought. Amazon offers a fair retail platform at a fair rate. Publishers may offer you the butter but you have to lease the bread from them. And the knife you need to spread it, well, that’ll cost extra, too. Maybe Amazon ends up like them someday, but that day is not today. And it also discounts the idea that, hey, maybe they won’t because, as a tech company, they know better than most the second they do, someone else is going to pounce. “We want competition by preventing the circumstances where competition can actually develop” is not a viable plan.

Everyone is ultimately going to make the choices they’re going to make, and they’re going to face the consequences of those choices; good, bad or some of both. I’m not sure dragging readers into the middle of a pissing contest between two groups who really should be in agreement on most things furthers anyone’s ends, regardless of who started it. And that’s what I think about that.

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

Bookish: New publisher-backed retail site is game-chan…eh, whatever

I was checking out Bookish today, the new Big Six backed trojan horse, supposed to look like some kinda Goodreads/retail store hybrid thing but really is a not-so-subtle attempt to build their own little walled garden only sans the hardware. Yeah, I’m not a fan, what can I say?

Actually, I don’t really see too much to get worked up about anyway. There’s nothing really new here, and it’s pretty clearly an attempt to regain gatekeeper control by imitating various popular book-related internet properties they could have innovated a decade or so ago if they’d have pulled their collective heads from their assess even temporarily. Late to the party doesn’t usually fly. That and this is traditional publishing trying to be forward-thinking, after all. So forward that the debut was about two years after it was supposed to be. I’m not encouraged by the vision or support behind this if things don’t go instantly great and end up even the slightest bit challenging.

The DRM insistance sucks but not at all unexpected. We’re still quite a ways from the biggest of publishers’ conglomerate masters getting the memo that they’re cutting their own throats with it. The part of the terms of service saying they own all rights to any user generated content is troubling, but again, publishers are behind this. Never met a right they didn’t try to grab. There appears to be a pretty stark “no refunds” policy on ebooks, too, enforceable after download, which, I guess, means store-credit-only if something’s messed up? Of course, shit-out-of-luck is a distinct customer service possibility here, too. Wouldn’t surprise me. By comparison, Amazon gives you seven days to “return” an ebook for a no-questions-asked refund. Not exactly a compelling reason to buy through Bookish rather than Amazon.

I would typically link to their site here, but apparently I would be violating their terms of use if I did so, it containing a provision allowing them to block your link if you disparage them. Lord knows I wouldn’t want to run afoul of their terms. So, good job, guys! Here’s at least one less link to you in the world.

At the end of the day, Bookish to me loses points precisely for what it’s trying to do, be a limiting factor in book shopping, and serve in a gatekeeper type capacity. It’s not so much what’s seen or recommended on their site, it’s what’s excluded that’s the problem. It’s allowing material in from sources which meet some sort of standard of approval, apparently dependent entirely on the publisher. It’ll be interesting to see if this ends up with the big boys getting all the prime, algorithm-tweaking real estate. There doesn’t really seem to be much in the way of involvement for authors, either. But, I’m willing to give most things the benefit of the doubt, so I clicked on the “I’m an author” link in their FAQ. Here’s what I got:

How can I have my book(s) added to Bookish?

Authors should ask their publishers to confirm that their respective titles are in the data feeds provided to Bookish.

That’s it? I’m an author. I’m interested in becoming involved with this innovative new method of doing the same thing other people are doing just more self-servingly and the only acknowledgement or words of advice you have for me is “go ask your publisher”? Is it me, or is the tone of their suggestion reminiscient of when you were a kid and annoyed your mother with some question she didn’t care about to the point she’d say, “go ask your father?” Seems a bit dismissive and condescending. I also find myself wondering at what point the lawyers took out the “If you’re a self-published author, go fuck yourself!” line that I’m pretty sure was in the first draft.

It’s not a bad thing for publishers to try to get some sort of more direct retail channel. But they can’t even get all the big players to back it. Hell, Apple talked them all into breaking antitrust law together, but something that could actually be a practical benefit to the industry if done right? No way! This should have been done years ago. Now, it’s just chasing, piggy-backing on other people’s hardware, yet still trying to build that mystical walled garden through DRM. Authors are pretty obviously an afterthought, and they certainly aren’t treated as any kind of business equals, more like underlings to their publisher masters. I’ll withhold judgement on whether this is useful to readers until we actually hear from some, but I’m not optimistic given what I see so far. If I had to guess, Bookish will err too far toward crass commercialism over genuinely social interactions with readers. Basically, I’m seeing a site that’s talking at readers, not with them, and that’s going to be its biggest problem.

Finding Value: In the great internet disruption, will authors need publishers any longer?

I’ve written a bit lately about the value, or relative lack thereof, of publishers to authors in the rapidly emerging ebook market.  I covered my thinking on the subject clearly here.  And then followed up a bit when discussing a somewhat similar point of view from a self published author here.  Basically, my point is that book publishers once brought value to the relationship with authors in the sheltered, high cost-barrier to entry print market, but, unless they undergo a major paradigm shift, they risk bringing very little value to authors in the growing ebook market.  And they certainly won’t bring enough to justify keeping 4/5 of the proceeds.

Well, in following the market as I do, I’ve increasingly run across more and more authors asking the very same question:  what are publishers doing for me that I can’t do for myself and why should I continue to give up 75 or 80% of the proceeds?  As increasing numbers of authors ask these questions that are so imperative to our futures as writers, publishers have a major problem.  How they respond will largely determine whether they follow the collapse of the newspaper and music industries, or will they adapt, and adjust to a more equal or even lesser role to content creators in their business relationships.  There is no middleground.  Publishers cannot continue with business as usual.  Adapt or die is the mantra of the internet disruption and they are not an exception.

Here’s an article that describes exactly the issue at hand, an agent discussing the fact that more of the authors he represents are asking him exactly what are publishers doing for me?  There are some responses from publishers, mostly to the effect of, well, we defend territoriality and we fight against piracy.  One publisher said that perhaps the problem is that publishers don’t explain to authors what they do for them very well, without, of course, any specific details of what exactly those benefits are.

Territoriality is an increasing anachronism in today’s market that creates unnecessary hurdles like an author needing different publishers in the U.S. and the UK.  The concept may have made sense in the somewhat sheltered physical world of yesterday, but in today’s digital age, it seems like one more unnecessary obstacle.  It’s also going to be pretty irrelevant, too, as more authors forego publishers as I, and many others, expect they will.

Fighting piracy is another matter altogether.  I’ve long believed that the framing of this issue has been off base all along.  As a content creator myself, I have no problem with downloading.  It’s not taking money out of my pocket if they weren’t going to buy it in the first place.  And I firmly believe that more eyeballs on my work can only lead to more fans which leads to more opportunities to make money.  DRM, draconian intellectual property laws, and copious infringement lawsuits lead to the exact opposite, that is less exposure, more alienated customers and an overall decline in opportunity.  They need to come to grips with the fact that they no longer have a captive customer base and they will not be able to recapture that.  The music industry declined precipitously not because people were downloading music for free, but because of the tactics they used to fight it.  They can argue all they like, but increasingly strict controls on intellectual property leads directly to loss of sales, not the other way around.

The key today is to have a positive mutual relationship with current and potential customers, and that means we have to convince people to willingly want to pay for it, at a price the customers find reasonable.  You can’t force that.  Just because I produce something and put it out there doesn’t mean I am entitled to get paid, or that I deserve to earn a living from it.  Creative works, intellectual property if you will, is a completely different animal than building furniture, or painting a house or virtually any other trade.  No matter how much the industries that profit from the creative works of others frame it, it’s simply a different, stranger business with a very different customer relationship.  And I’d be nothing short of a total hypocrit to complain about not extracting value out of a product the customers see no value in. 

Fighting what they call piracy is a losing game, and I would argue that traveling that road actually creates and perpetuates the true negatives of file sharing while blocking its potential benefits, and does nothing but add to the psychological barriers between potential customers and paying for your products.  These defenses by publishers aren’t things they do to benefit authors, they do these to benefit themselves, creating barriers between authors and customers they believe they can exploit and profit from.  Exactly how much money of that recovered by the RIAA in infringement lawsuits was paid down to the artists who’s works were the basis for the suits in the first place?  That’s right, zero.

Here’s another piece that discusses the same issue, what exactly is the value of a publisher?  Don’t miss the comments by a publishing exec later on in the piece where he essentially makes the case, against all reality, common sense and first hand observation, that ebooks aren’t actually cheaper to produce than print books.  In fact, he makes a subtle suggestion that they might actually be more expensive.  He provides a lengthy list of things publishers do in producing ebooks that is a combination of their own overhead and things authors can easily do for themselves now at low or no cost.  This smacks of a self serving point to me, both to justify publishers place in the process and the obviously way-too-small royalty rates on ebooks to authors.  If ebooks aren’t infinitely cheaper for you to produce and sell, you’re doing something horribly, horribly wrong. 

The problem isn’t that ebooks aren’t cheaper, it’s that publishers’ infrastructure built on the print model is too bulky, inefficient and expensive.  Again, this is a clear indication of the need to adapt before authors flee in droves.  After all, why prop up a framework you neither benefit from or really need, especially to the tune of 40-50% of the proceeds you would otherwise have received?

And here’s another piece, this one discussing agents starting digital publishing efforts of their own for their authors.  Now there are some concerns with that type of arrangement, potential conflicts of interest primarily, and the writer of this piece has a vested interest being an agent doing exactly what he’s advocating.  But there are some excellent points about what he calls a “perfect storm” of elements bearing down on publishers.

There are two points, in particular, that struck me.  One is about rights, namely that many authors have given up the rights to backlist titles that publishers are doing little or nothing with.  He even argues for a reverse royalty type arrangement where the rights would return to the authors in exchange for a 25% royalty on future sales paid to the publisher.  Rights are an area where I believe we, as content creators, have been very lax over the years, willingly giving up rights to our material almost in perpetuity to publishers.  This is another area where publishers must change, I believe, as it’s increasingly in our best interest as authors to reclaim control of our material.

In the past, the difficulties of getting into the guarded walls of traditional publishing made giving up our rights almost an afterthought and a necessary evil at best.  But now, the tables are turning to where authors again have much more leverage in the relationship.  Besides, how galling would it have to be to pay royalties to a publisher to regain rights to your own works that they weren’t even adequately exploiting?  It’s an experience I could do without having.

The second point is about big name brand authors, such as J.K. Rowling.  The Harry Potter series author, as you may have heard, has started her own ebook unit, called Pottermore, and is planning to use it to sell ebooks of the Potter series, which she smartly retained rights to, as well as other titles, free from the hand of a publisher.  In the article, the writer points out that we could soon see a rush of brand authors following suit.  Many of these well-known, best-selling authors are under contract for more books in the traditional system, but he correctly makes the point that when those contracts run out, all bets are off. 

If the most profitable, A- list authors begin to bail on publishers, they will have a very real and potentially fatal problem.  To this, I would add a deeper concern.  Not only are publishers at risk of losing their top-level performers, but the pipeline to produce new top-selling authors could be clogged as well.  New and emerging authors are likely to be very technology friendly and proficient.  This makes the publisher arrangement look even more unattractive to someone who’s essentially an internet native and can easily grasp the aspects of going it alone and foregoing traditional publishers.  Lose your top earners and your means of replacing them in the chain, and publishers can, for lack of a more diplomatic term, kiss their ass goodbye. 

The only way to keep either end of their pipeline of talent from fleeing is to have much, much more author friendly arrangements, which means big changes to publishers structurally.  This is something they, to this point, have been hesitant to consider, but it’s also something that could well have forced on them in the not-too-distant future, but by then, it could be too late. 

Newspaper publishing was facing a similar situation 10 years ago and they, almost in unison, ignored the warning signs while still reaping the nice profits from their print-centric system that had yet to be seriously disrupted.  We all know how that turned out, a decade later, a market less than half the size it once was, dead and dying papers strewn about the landscape, and those remaining little more than dragged kicking and screaming into reality, praying against hope that paywalls and tablet apps will stop the bleeding.  Do book publishers want to end up the same way?

I’ll wrap up this with a look at author Sam Harris’ take on the future of the book from his own blog.  Harris has an interesting view on how things have changed, pointing out that, in some cases, author’s blogs far exceed the traffic and interaction that their work receives on sites like Vanity Fair or the New Yorker.  A telling line from Harris is this one:  “I can count on one finger the number of places where it is still obviously better for me to publish than on my own blog…”  That development is at once liberating and discouraging as a writer.  That an individual writer can far exceed the exposure and reach of the platforms that used to provide that reach is greatly encouraging.  But those same platforms used to pay.  Now, it’s up to the writer to figure out how to monetize that newfound reach.  Like I said, at once scary and exciting.

On Harris’ end, he’s trying the route of get the best of both worlds.  He’ll publish long-form works through traditional channels and self publish shorter works independently online.  Sounds like a plan, but the tone of the piece had a distinct sense of foreboding for the future of the printed book, as if he was saying he’d stick with the traditional print end just until he doesn’t anymore, which could be sooner than any of us realize.

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