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

Amazon the Great and Terrible

So I’m sitting here this fine Sunday morning patiently waiting for David Gaughran’s promised blog piece on the PR campaign Hatchette may be running in its now six-month contract dispute with Amazon. (Warning: profanity ahead because some of this shit just pisses me off.) I, for one, am not buying the “poor helpless little Hatchette being bullied by big, bad Amazon” meme that’s so popular these days. It’s making the rounds everywhere, which I find fascinating due largely to the fact that nobody outside the negotiating wing of those two companies has any knowledge whatsoever about the dispute, and they’re not talking. Well, Amazon, per usual, isn’t talking. Hatchette isn’t talking about any of the issues at hand either, but they are going through great pains to play the wounded party, and igniting the entrenched Amazon hatred out there to do the rest of the heavy lifting.

I’d think people would be more suspicious of things like that. In my experience, when someone in a position like Hatchette is playing the victim card, without clearly backing it up, odds are, they’re conveniently leaving out the parts where they are anything but victimized. So my opinion, knowing nothing about the specifics of their negotiation but strictly looking at the outward actions of the participants, Amazon is going about its business and Hatchette is playing a totally different game. Are they justified? Possibly but I get a strong sense of Hatchette trying to control the narrative and I don’t much care for being manipulated.

“Scott Turow said that Amazon recently raised the price of his most recent book, “Identical,” a move that he said would depress sales.”
–From Washington Post, May 16

Ok, what? First off, that quote’s from the Washington Post, you know, the newspaper Jeff Bezos owns. So much for slanted coverage huh? The difference I see between the Post’s coverage and most other coverage is that the Post consistently uses phrases like “could be”, “might be”, “industry insiders suspect” and things like that when discussing the negotiation. They’ve presented the argument without validating it, which is exactly what all these papers should be doing, unless they actually have hard evidence to support it, then they should print that. But they don’t. It’s rumor and conjecture presented as fact when the people writing can’t possibly know if it’s true.

Secondly, WTF Scott Turow!?! You’re actually bitching that Amazon isn’t discounting your book? Didn’t you just spend two years telling us Amazon was destroying the industry by discounting books? Is there any coherence in your argument at all? Are you just going to complain no matter what Amazon does? Or are you, as is the case with many political pundits, just going to spout the party line regardless of whether it contradicts what you just said. “Amazon’s discounting is killing us” is so last month, I guess.

So here’s my assumption about you based on your own comments. You’re a writer and a lawyer, for God’s sake, so it defies credulity to me that you don’t see the obvious contradiction in your own statements. So I must conclude that you do see it, and just don’t care. You likely never gave a shit about other writers, the industry at large or Amazon’s discounting. You were playing a mouthpiece for your publisher because you thought it was in your best interest at the time. And you did it in defense of a criminal conspiracy by your own publisher and others to violate antitrust law. But now, Amazon’s not discounting and that may hit you in the wallet, so discounting suddenly is no longer destroying the industry but necessary, and you’re statements have shifted accordingly. Credibility all day long, I tell ya. My conclusion is that you’re full of shit, and acting out of your and only your own self interest. Let me ask you, what’s your statement going to be if we find out Hatchette’s trying to reinstitute Agency in some form, limiting or eliminating Amazon’s ability to discount? Actually, I don’t even need to ask, I already know. Assumptions are a bitch, aren’t they?

“Amazon has begun discouraging customers from buying books by Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Colbert, J. D. Salinger and other popular writers, a flexing of its muscle as a battle with a publisher spills into the open.”
–From the New York Times

“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

The first quote, from the New York Times, contains no “could be”, “reportedly”, or “may be”. It’s “Amazon is”. They don’t know that, only that Hatchette is telling them that. Mightn’t they have an agenda? So does the Times, of course, but that’s a different article. The second quote is from an actual Hatchette author trying to get his publisher to prove what they’re saying. Look at the response again: “It is not information we would like to be shared with any third party at the current time.” No shit. Wonder why?

Here comes some assumptions again. Say I’m in a business arrangement with someone and they get involved in a dispute that negatively affects me, and they’re telling me “It’s not our fault. Those bastards over there are doing it to you.” My reaction is going to be exactly like this guy, “then you’ll have no problem proving to me you’re doing what you say?” If they come back with a response like he got, I can only conclude that they’re lying to me about something.

And are you telling me the writer is a third party in the distribution of his own fucking book? He’s not entitled to see proof that you’re not lying right to his face and actively harming what he contracted you for in the service of your interests elsewhere? Sales that, in the traditional world, operate in a very short time window and can have disastrous consequences on any future career? Fuck off with that noise. Whatever the negotiating battle is being fought over, this little tidbit of information may be the most important of all for writers. Hatchette doesn’t respect this guy, and they certainly aren’t treating him like a business equal. And their refusal to back up their attempt to escape responsibility for something that’s hurting their own authors even to those authors themselves, should be unacceptable. But writers, please remember, you all signed the contracts that made it this way. This Hatchette writer certainly does and is factoring that in to his future choices. So should we all.

What saddens me about this is that there are all these writers out there who see Amazon as a rival of sorts but don’t see the publishers that way. The Hatchette/Amazon dispute, and the ones like it certain to come, is a fight between billion dollar enterprises over staggering sums of money and that’s all it is. The Amazon haters are right about one thing, Amazon is not your friend. But neither are publishers. And if you’re looking for friends in a contract, anyway, you’ve got bigger problems. The best you can hope for in a business arrangement is that your interests and the interests of the other party align and flow in the same direction. You get into one where your interests diverge at some point, you may well find yourself screwed by your own signature.

I can cut off all business dealings with Amazon in the half hour it takes me pull my stuff offline. If I was signed with Hatchette or some other publisher, that type of action is simply unthinkable. I’m stuck with that contract maybe for the rest of my life, or 35 years at the least. And I don’t even have the right to verify they’re living up to their end of it. If the New York Times or Salon or the Wall Street Journal or Scott Turow want to talk about power imbalances, how about we address that one first? Who, exactly, is that man behind the curtain we shouldn’t be paying attention to?

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

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