A Piece Written For Free About Writing For Free

Should you write for free? That’s a question that bounced around the blogosphere this week. My immediate reaction was, “Hell no!”  But the more I thought about it, I kept coming up with situations and examples where it made perfect sense to do so.  Basically, my “Hell no” has morphed into an, “it depends.”  More than that, I realized it always has been.  I can’t even begin to offer a realistic estimate of the volume of writing I’ve done over the course of my life. Suffice it to say it’s a helluva lot.  For a sizable portion of it, there was a check involved on the back end.  But for a great deal more, there hasn’t been a payoff in direct monetary terms.  And you know what, I’m totally cool with that.  

This discussion suffers from elitist syndrome.  By that, I mean, there’s a certain subset of people who managed to finangle their way into regular paydays from strictly writing.  Not many, mind you. Nor have there ever been, but let’s not allow an accurate depiction of history to interfere with today’s doomsaying meme of the moment.  First, though, it’s instructive to ask what kind of writers are seeing their incomes decline like this? The answer, basically, is writers whose primary income streams depend on corporate media companies. Let’s review what’s happened in the past few years. There was a massive recession, the worst of any of our lifetimes so far. There was a giant disruption in their business model, which led to both the creation of an entirely new class of digital products and distribution and the emergence of viable alternatives to publishing and distribution that doesn’t go directly through them. They’ve not been receptive of these technological improvements, largely choosing to err on the side of protectionism for print. And when they do go after the digital dollars, they’ve created an industry standard for severely underpaying writers on this much higher margin product.  Given these circumstances, why is it in the least bit surprising that many writers who choose this path as a primary revenue option are seeing diminished returns? It’s entirely predictable, in fact.

There’s also the question of value. There’s a routinely trotted out theory that self published writers giving their works away for free or selling them for a pittance devalues writing.  But consider, if your finely crafted professional work can be so simply and easily swapped out by the work of what you consider inexperienced amateurs, maybe it’s not them devaluing the work at all. Maybe it was the rare set of circumstances that created the long-prevailing (and now broken) scarcity model that allowed you to over-value the work. Maybe you’re just not that special now that we’re in an environment where genuine choice has become a real factor.

Does that mean you should write for free? Well, it depends. If you’re writing for a major media company, fuck no, you absolutely should not. Under no circumstances. If the question is should I write for the Huffington Post in exchange for exposure, my answer is, if you’re looking for exposure, you should just stroll out into a blizzard in your underwear. It’ll be much quicker. The Huffington Post is a scam, a shop set up with the intent of not paying for content. All the better for their bottom line.  To hell with those kinds of folks.  But if you want to contribute something to some fringe website on some subject you know about, someone who isn’t exactly rolling in money and not backed by a mega-corp, why not? Maybe you care more about your ideas on the subject getting out there than if the purveyor of the platform can afford to toss a c-note your way. The idea that directly selling your words is the only path to success or achievement is perhaps the most narrow definition of being a writer I’ve ever seen.

It also seems to be the one adhered to by our friend Roxanna Robinson, the head of the Authors Guild, who did little to distinguish herself during the Amazon/Hatchette battle. A stance some people, me included, feel actually contributed to the declining revenues for writers that have their knickers all in a twist. But I’ll get to that later.  Robinson is the head of a professional trade group of writers, so it makes a certain amount of sense for this to be her position.  It doesn’t make it the right one. And it puts more than a little strain on her claims that they’re open to any and all writers when their principle position is one that basically only applies to an extremely small subset of writers.  

What I find interesting is that, way back in the pre-internet stone age, as a young writer just starting out, the accepted practice was to submit to small press magazines, most of which paid nothing at all or in copies, if you were lucky. The theory was build up your resume, as it were, with publication credits to make your query letters more attractive in the hopes of working your way up to small paying publications, then possibly to well paying ones.  But it all started under the presumption that your initial forays would be largely unpaid. And that says nothing of the numerous journalistic enterprises and the value of doing unpaid internships there in landing actual paying positions. Again, newcomers expected to work for free. If Robinson is arguing that these practices are exploitative, then I’m in total agreement. But somehow, I suspect her complaints are more geared toward the writers who now choose to avoid this particular set of trenches altogether.

You see, back when I was a relative newcomer, the submission gauntlet was more controlled. The scarcity that physical costs of production created inhibited most end-runs to the process, so a clear hierarchy became delineated on the “proper” way to strive for success as a writer. A path, mind you, that required a helluva lot of free work just to attract the attention of someone who might be willing to consider paying you at some point.  The difference now, though, is instead of the corporations benefitting from all this free labor, it’s the audience who’s benefitting. That is a direct threat to their tiered labor structure, and it’s exposed a pricing scheme that is built upon a crumbling foundation of scarcity.  Oh, wait. I’m sorry, I forgot.  It’s all Amazon’s fault.  Free labor is horrible, unless, of course, it’s our buddies expecting you to toil away unpaid. Then it’s called paying your dues.  But if your free labor isn’t benefitting our pals, or worse yet, is actually benefitting you directly in ways that don’t require their approval, then you’re a blight on the industry.

Robinson is right in some ways, Declining author incomes (in her particular wheelhouse) is a very real thing. I expect it to get much worse, with the increasing use of Agency pricing designed to steer readers away from digital and back to print.  That’s the theory, anyway. I expect it to be more a case of steering readers away from their digital stuff to other people’s digital stuff in the long term. The impact on print may be negligible, unless of course they do something stupid like tie the fate of their print and ebooks together while actively handicapping the more efficient, higher margin side. Whoops, too late.  

Robinson is correct to be concerned. It would have been nice had that concern shown itself last year when a group like the Authors Guild had a unique opportunity to apply some pressure to publishers while they were in the midst of freaking out that Amazon was going to end the world as they knew it. But instead, she happily fell in line with the publishers’ slanted viewpoint, maybe hoping they would see that loyalty as something to be rewarded later in some undefined way.  Well, you’re seeing the beginnings of what that loyalty earned her and the authors she helped lead down the garden path right now. Their publisher buddies, the ones they so willingly tossed their loyalty behind, are squeezing writer incomes to better their own. And now, thanks to their help, pubs have a level of pricing control in retail that, in my opinion, transitioned the threat level of their contracts all the way up to Defcon 1.    

It’s easy to point fingers at self published writers giving their stuff away for free. Low-hanging fruit, as the saying goes. But if Robinson wants to know why authors incomes are falling, she should look in the mirror. If anyone is guilty of devaluing anything, they are. She devalued author loyalty when she so blithely gave it away during a damn contract negotiation with a retailer. She devalued the writers she professes to represent by going all in with their support without extracting even the slightest bit of quid pro quo. She allowed the publishers to trot them out as the useful idiot to put a faux-cultural face on what was essentially a power-grab.  She did nothing at all to take advantage of the fact that they needed authors for that effort, and gave very little indication she actually recognized the situation for what it was.  She let her fear of Amazon drive them into a corner. Might as well have held their wallets open to the pubs and said, “Here, take what you like.”

And this is the best that advocates of “only write for money” can do? It’s a little disheartening. But should you write for free? There’s as many different paths (and different opinions on what constitutes success) as their are writers. That wasn’t the case not so very long ago. Free work by writers isn’t a new thing, something magically thought up by the internet demons to destroy vaunted cultural institutions. There’s always been an expectation that being a writer involves a certain amount of unpaid toiling to reach the point of actual paying work. All I can say is that you should strive to make certain, should you choose to do so, that unpaid toiling benefits you in some way. And despite what some of the well-heeled at what they perceive as the head of the writerly class might suggest, direct monetary rewards are not the end all, be all of the discussion.

So, should you write for free?  It depends.  What are you trying to achieve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does Amazon have to say about this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop selling ebook and print rights as a bundle

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

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

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

Refuse to accept any 25% of net contracts

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

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

Refuse to sign any life of copyright contracts

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

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

Watch those fuckers like a hawk

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Two Memes of Destruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conflicting Notions of the Value of Conflict

Typically in this space, I go to great, rambling lengths to point out and discuss matters I thoroughly disagree with. I’m a confirmed cynic, and on top of that, I tend to hold opinions that aren’t necessarily popular. In some circles, certainly, but not always. I believe we should have first sale rights including resale on digital goods. That’s not a particularly popular opinion in any circles. I couldn’t possibly care less about piracy and, in fact, I’ve said many times that I don’t even think it is piracy nor do I think it’s harmful in the slightest. Another not particularly popular opinion. I’ve openly defended publishing pundits like Mike Shatzkin, and caught some hell for it. Doesn’t change my mind. I don’t always agree with him, even with most of what he says, but I do usually get something to consider out of it. I also think he’s one of the more vocal critics of traditional publishing, one from the inside, and I think those voices are important to consider. Nobody knows everything. Your perspectives may vary and that can color any beliefs. You don’t have to swear allegiance to them, just try to understand where they’re coming from.

But what I absolutely can’t stand is naiveté. It’s why I was so bluntly mean to Doug Preston last week. He’s got name recognition, a large platform and the support of some sizable names amongst authors. To me, that makes it all the more disappointing that he’s using it on nonsensical arguments, pointless shaming actions and industry fairytales of nurturing publishers and literature exempt from commercial pressures (particularly galling to me coming a guy who’s made bank simply because publishing is a commercial entity).

I read this piece on the value of conflict by Barry Eisler yesterday. In it, he talks about an interaction he recently had with someone who doesn’t care for the tone some vocal self publishing supporters take. Here’s a quote from that person:

“Instead of being a force for change, self-publishing appears to be a force that creates conflict, makes people feel defensive or unwilling to speak publicly, and is, I believe, getting in the way of change.”

First, change doesn’t happen without conflict of some form or another. There’s also the matter of the frequently dismissive tone toward self publishers that turns up in many of these pieces, such as the Bush League reference by author Janet Fitch I talked about yesterday. Those kinds of things necessarily set people like me on edge. And we react. We aren’t out here serving any masters other than ourselves, and we are free to speak our minds. I don’t believe many traditionally published authors feel they are free to criticize their publishers. Whether they actually are or not is debatable, but I don’t believe they think they are. Otherwise, wouldn’t there be more of them out here raising hell? Where’s the Hachette authors throwing a fit at them for dragging their feet and not negotiating in good faith while their writers’ careers burn? Don’t tell me they don’t exist. They do, but the industry, with implied and often self-inflicted pressures, keeps them silent.

So when someone comes into what’s essentially a discussion of business models and commercial approaches with some nonsense about books not being products, that gouging readers with higher prices is crucial for the furtherance of literature and all kinds of ridiculous, unsupportable accusations about Amazon’s conduct while totally ignoring or whitewashing the conduct of their own publushers, in this environment, you’re going to get a smack down. And, in my opinion, you’ll deserve it.

Bring logic, facts and rational arguments based on the immutable reality that we’re all discussing a many-billions of dollars commercial enterprise here populated by various multi-billion dollar profit-seeking conglomerates and not some mythical philanthropic exercise and you’ll be okay. I may not agree with you, and I’ll probably argue if I do disagree, but I won’t ridicule you like I did Preston. If you want to discuss literature in the cultural sense detached from commercial concerns (and to be clear, I do believe that’s a worthy discussion) don’t frame it in the context of a business negotiation between the largest retailer going and one of a small handful of the largest publishers in the world. There’s a place for that discussion, just not in the middle of a purely commercial dispute amongst purely commercial enterprises.

The attacks you see come about because, when someone does that, they come off as naive. Worse yet, in not reflecting their lens of criticism at the publishers as well as Amazon, to many of us out here, they can come off as ignorant and a bit clueless. There are more opportunities for writers to get their work, and their ideas, out there to the public today, completely irrespective of commercial concerns than ever before in human history. If that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. In fact, you wouldn’t be reading 99% of the criticisms of the traditional industry that exist today because mainstream media outlets are inbred with the media conglomerates and don’t often take them properly to task. Just ask Bill Simmons of ESPN how willing these supposedly independent media companies are to brook serious criticisms of their corporate fellow travelers. The voices of opposition have been silent too long, in my opinion, and the megaphones we use to shout our concerns to the masses is an extraordinarily valuable development and it is directly and indirectly responsible for the much-needed reform that’s currently gripping the industry.

So educate yourself before you speak. Bring a thoughtful point of view to the table, wherever on the spectrum your opinions lie, and you’ll be all right. You might even learn something. Better still, some of the people reading you might learn something, too. Everyone has their own perspective and there is clear value is seeing and understanding perspectives different from your own. There is also value in engaging with your critics, as well as your supporters. But you can’t just spout nonsense that flies in the face of the reality many of us see every day and not expect to be called on it. It’s not 1988 anymore. Everyone has a voice. Use them wisely.

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

Assumptions and Disintermediation

“To think that the publisher’s plan for the book doesn’t include all forms is mistaken. The cost of producing a book–editing, acquisition (ie paying the writer and his or her agent), design, marketing, overhead–is spread out over all the forms, the hardbound, the paperback, the ebook, the audiobook, large print, etc.”
— Author Janet Fitch

“You also have to take into consideration the price of the hardcover. Yes, it’s cheap to make a digital book but it’s expensive to present a book in hardcover.”
— Roxana Robinson, Authors Guild President

“Their “total pie” is really just a piece of the pie. “Total revenue” on an ebook is only part of the “total revenue” for a new release book.”
— Michael Cader

Here are three quotes framing the industry’s treatment of digital as but one part of an overall picture. The statement is true but (and here’s the kicker) it’s only true for the author, not the publisher unless the author allows it. The assumption that a book is one product with varying delivery mechanisms is wrong. It’s actually three products. I know this because the only way a publisher can have those full range of offerings to spread costs across is if the author sells them those rights. Separately.

There are three basic sets of rights involved (many more if you get all granular down into translations, overseas markets, what have you. I think it was Lee Child who said Amazon represents something like 11 of the 97 markets he sells his books in). At its root, there are three basic products the author is selling as a bundle: print rights, digital rights and audio rights. Everything else, for the most part, stems from these three forms. The question I have is why do so many writers feel it’s not only necessary to sell them as a bundle to the same entity, but to operate under some illusion that it’s not even a bundle at all? There is no reason whatsoever (other than publisher obstinance) why you can’t sell the print rights to one place, digital rights to another and audio rights to a third. Not one.

My take on this has been pretty clear; I do not believe inextricably tying print and digital together is the correct course of action. Further, I absolutely do not want the same entity handling both my print and digital products. That will inevitably result in handicapping one format to benefit the other, as many publishers are doing right now by trying to stifle ebooks to some degree in order to support their print infrastructure. It doesn’t support print because it doesn’t address the online commerce issue which is what’s really hurting bookstores. And it damages the growth potential of your digital business by anchoring it within the far-more-expensive print cost structure. Newspapers cut their own throats by trying to do this exact thing.

I understand why publishers would want the full range of rights for a book, and that made some sense when print was dominant to the point of largely being all there was. What I don’t understand anymore is why writers would still want one entity to have all those rights? Sell the print rights alone and say this is your one job, focus on generating sales for print only. Do the same with digital (or handle them yourself).

Publishers won’t willingly go along with this but tough. Don’t give them the option unless they’re paying a premium for the full bundle. But to accept contracts that are tangibly identical to what they’ve always been with potentially extremely lucrative ebook rights thrown in at largely no additional cost is just not smart. Writers need to quit assuming that a “book” is one product in multiple formats and see it for what it is; multiple products, each needing a different cost structure and level of expertise to properly exploit. Stop just tossing digital rights in with a deal from a company with print expertise. Likewise, don’t toss print rights into a deal with a company with digital expertise. Find the best party for each specific product (or do it yourself).

The buzzword of the 21st century is disintermediation. Bundled arrangements produce inefficiency now. You’re willingly undercutting yourself by selling all your rights to one entity. There’s also the matter of rights reversions. If a publisher is producing print sales for me but their digital sales are lagging, why should my digital rights not have its own separate threshold for reversions? If this were the case, a publisher couldn’t effectively hamstring one format to help another without risking losing the rights to that format. And vice versa, if digital is booming but print isn’t producing, those print rights should revert on their own merits without regard to the performance of other formats. Publishers will hate, hate, hate this, which is all the more reason why we should demand disintermediation of different categories of rights within any publishing contract.

The next writer who so easily spouts the line that the publishers’ plan is spread across all formats should stop and think how that can even come about. They can only do it if you willingly sell them all those rights as a bundle. Your choice to sign a contract like that is what creates an environment where these divergent products are intertwined. It’s not a foregone conclusion out of necessity but a willful business decision by you. And it’s very likely not even in your best interest or the interest of maximizing revenue across all formats. Stop assuming and start looking at what’s actually possible. I think you’ll find things are no longer as the industry at large would like them to appear to be.

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

Published in: on September 25, 2014 at 11:58 am  Comments (5)  
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Revisiting Paywalls Revisited

(Note: this is an unfinished piece from April of 2012 that’s been sitting as a draft in my WordPress que of posts since then. I never did get around to answering the question I asked at the end, but it increasingly looks like there’s no real reason to. The answer seems even more clear now than it did then, so much so, that the question itself even seems rhetorical now…)

Earlier this week, I received a message from a friend of mine asking if I’d heard about the latest round of layoffs at our local newspaper.  Since I moved from Cecil County to Chestertown nearly two years ago now (wow, time flies) I’ve found that I’ve lost interest in the comings and goings in that particular neck of the woods.

The state of printed media in my hometown was a popular topic of discussion on this site for the first couple of years, primarily because it was close at hand, their struggles echoed the newspaper industry at large in a lot of ways, and I still had connections with many folks in and out of the company. As I mentioned in the past, I worked there myself on two separate occasions in various capacities.  Before I received that message the other day, however, I hadn’t experienced a stray thought in their direction for months. 

Professionally speaking, I’ve moved on from any hope of getting back into the newsprint business.  It’s not just the derth of jobs (layoffs, buyouts, downsizing still abounds industry-wide as the revenue sinkhole just keeps getting deeper year after year) it’s that I simply don’t see a future in that area as it presently exists and I have yet to find a digital alternative that looks truly sustainable. Better to look in other directions, I figured.

Ebooks have been my focus for the past year, and, to this point, I see all the possibilities for revenue generation and sustainability within that area that are lacking in the digital-alternative newspaper segment. I’ve been writing, publishing, experimenting, expanding my skills and, most encouraging of all, actually selling my work at a level I’m not scoffing at (nor are the folks whose bills I’m paying with that money)*.  The gist of it is that, to my way of thinking, the struggles of newspapers are yesterday’s problems, ones that I’ve left, rather properly, in the past.  They had ample opportunity to innovate and adapt but didn’t, and the slow crawl to oblivion may be irreversible at this point. 

(* Note: Since then, I’ve since rethought my approach to ebooks and digital publishing. I did bring in a decent chunk of change at the time but I grew dissatisfied with my own efforts, so I’ve been cranking out new material, reworking old material and developing a different, much more expansive approach to this that I’ll be kicking off likely early next year, if not sooner. Try doing that when you’re locked into a publishing contract.)

So, when I read this message about further layoffs, it was a bit like hearing that an old girlfriend you were serious about a decade ago just got married. You hadn’t thought about her in years, she played no part in your day to day life for as long as you could remember, and news that would have seemed enormously important not that long ago ends up met with a shrug. It’s not that it doesn’t sadden me a bit to see the continued decline of my hometown newspaper, it does. But at this point, there’s really nothing that can be done about it. The point of no return for many newspapers passed by a while ago.

In today’s atmosphere, resources have eroded to such a level that genuine full-scale innovation really isn’t possible any longer. If it had been undertaken 3 or 4 years ago, it might have made a difference. Even scrapping the enterprise and starting over isn’t really feasible at this point simply because so many skilled people have been let go, particularly on the content side. You can’t really launch a new direction in an increasingly content-driven market when saddled with a money losing print albatross and a sparse skelton crew of leftovers. It saddens me to see it but, again, all of this at least could have been avoided with a bit of vision and foresight a few years ago when it mattered. But you can’t cry over spilt milk now that the carton’s down to the last few dregs of backwash.

All of which got me thinking about the last stand of newspapers, the paywall. Much like those famed 300 Spartans fending off the Persians, paywalls may hold off the onslaught for a short time, but in the end, the Spartans all ended up dead. For the Greeks, however, that stand provided the necessary time to execute a larger strategy that ultimately stopped a Persian takeover. Do newspapers even have a larger strategy to survive beyond simply fending off immediate annihilation? Or are paywalls their final stand?


So, here we are two and a half years later, and I think this question answers itself. There was obviously no deeper plan going on at most papers, and the renewed push for paywalls then did little if anything to stem the hemmoraging of revenue. Here’s a piece by Clay Shirky essentially penning the obituary on the print newspaper business. As you can see, not only did this strategy not work to stifle print declines, it may well have instigated digital ad declines for them as well. They killed their future trying to protect a past that, at best, was on life support.

As for the company I mentioned, there have been more layoffs since these and the company was eventually sold to a venture capitalist known for slice and dice acquisitions. Doomed isn’t a strong enough word for their prospects at this point. Book publishers and their writers should take note of this. Following a print protectionist strategy did great harm to their emerging digital business. Ask questions, loudly and in no uncertain terms, anytime someone from the industry tries to tell you that restricting digital to protect print is a sound idea and in your best interest. It didn’t work here and I don’t hesitate to say it won’t work there, either.

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

Breaking the Scale: Bigger is not always better

A couple weeks or so ago, I left a comment on The Passive Voice under an article about Hachette’s CEO and his response to Amazon’s late night call to give him hell…er, politely inform him of your desire that they think critically about their pricing decisions, and seriously consider dropping the push for higher prices. Anyway, I got into a little bit of my experiences in dealing with large consolidated corporate accounting departments and the thinking I’ve run into about higher prices in days gone by. It got me thinking about a couple things and how this might relate to further understanding Hachette’s position and what the possible consequences could be, even if they get what they want.

Here’s the first comment I left:

“It may even be simpler than that. It reminds me of something I called the bean counter effect at a couple of magazines I worked for. They just couldn’t conceive of the notion that a higher price didn’t automatically mean more money. They wouldn’t recognize any kind of multiplier effect of more for less, no matter how many times we showed it to them on paper. It was a risk, unquantifiable (at the time) and all they knew was the difference between what we were selling at and the increase they wanted. We were selling print ads but it’s the same principle.

“Amazon could have said each sale at $9.99 generates a thousand extra sales and they wouldn’t have recognized it. They simply can’t see past “If I sell this for $13, I make $3 more than if I sell it for $10.” What I could never get across is that it’s not the difference between $13 and $10 that’s at issue, it’s the difference between $10 and the $0 that a not-insignificant number of people will choose instead $13. In this case, it’s the difference between $17.50 and $0 with Amazon’s multiplier data, which makes it an even dumber choice, I think. You’re not gaining anything at $13, you’re losing all the people who would have bought at $10. Essentially what you’re doing is making your customer base smaller and milking your best customers for extra money.”

Later on in the thread, I related a second instance of what I considered overly simplistic thinking involving money we paid out in this case. Here’s that second comment:

“At the same time though, you can’t always trust what they’re telling you about marginal cost. I was the managing editor of a free distribution magazine several years ago for a publisher who’s name would be instantly recognizable (not any of these folks). We were strictly ad supported and we operated on a 60/40 ad to editorial ratio, meaning we basically added up paid ad space and that number would represent 60% of our page count.

“Now I was a huge proponent of trading out ad space for various kinds of work we needed whenever possible. These trades were not counted as paid space so that added no cost outside the simple real price of what we paid to produce that space. Say I needed a delivery route run, something that would take a couple hours. I might pay someone $100 to handle it. Or I would offer them an 1/8 page ad for their business or whatever that’s listed at $150. They always took the ad, every time. Our real-world cost for that space across the entire print run was something like $20. And coming from non paid space, that $20 was a total sunk cost. So I traded $20 worth of sunk cost in exchange for not laying out $100 in real cash, effectively adding $80 to our bottom line. (You could argue it was adding the full $100 to the bottom line considering that $20 was being paid no matter what.) I was saving us somewhere between $2,000-$3,000 an issue with this stuff, if not more.

“Well our accounting department threw a fit. They insisted that we were actually losing $50 on this transaction. (Actually, they started out saying we were losing the full $150 price of the ad but I did manage to convince them the $100 was going to be outlayed in any case.) No matter how many times or how simply I laid it out for them, they would not move off the position that we were losing $50. It turns out their accounting systems had no mechanism for quantifying this because there was no revenue coming in but when they audited the paper, they recorded these ads as paid space, so we showed a deficit between the revenue they said we should have and what we actually produced.

“Eventually, they forbid me from making any more trades rather than adjust their accounting systems to record these gains. To make matters worse, our bottom line actually looked better on paper after they banned trades despite the fact that we were now spending a few thousand more per issue than we had been. That’s when the light bulb went fully on for me. If their standard accounting practices can make a real world $80 gain look like a $50 loss, and do it in such a way that it’s actually defensible and looks like it makes sense, can any of the figures they produce be trusted? How many other gains are showing up on the budgets looking like losses?

“Now this is a little simplified. There are tax issues and time a designer spends getting the ad together and such. But generally, we would get about 4 times the value back on a trade than we would paying out for it, and they banned me from doing so.”

I’ve found myself recently re-asking the two part question I wondered about back then, why in the world would you throw away essentially free money (in the instance of trades) and how do they not see that a much broader customer base at lower prices makes a far more stable longer-term revenue stream than a smaller base with higher prices? I also spent a not-inconsiderable amount of time worrying about the fact that I knew absolutely that the budget sheets we were getting from them were showing an artificially better bottom line than what actually existed. The disconnect between reality on the ground and the faux reality of their accounting systems was an insoluble issue simply because they wouldn’t even admit there was a problem.

I’m watching book publishers and their supporters today making arguments that are just as inexplicable to me as those were then. Do they not understand what’s really going on out here? Can they really be deluded enough to believe that readers will be supportive, even in the short term, of a strategy that gives them less choice, more restrictions and a higher price? Were they being taken in by comments from some readers supporting such a position? What I knew, from lots of experience, is that there’s often a hell of a difference between people speaking in high minded pronouncements about paying a premium to support their “culture” or what have you, and the choices they actually make when it comes time to break out the wallet.

I’m starting to believe the problem here is scale. Larger and larger companies require higher and higher outlays of resources just to keep the lights on, meaning the proportion of price needed for simple infrastructure that has nothing to do with actual production expenses grows near exponentially with the size of the entity. We’ve had it drummed into our heads that scale is beneficial because it provides greater negotiating leverage and greater purchasing power at lower prices from larger levels of bulk buying. This may have made sense at some pre-internet point, but does it still make sense in the current atmosphere? Does it even apply to something like ebooks that requires no physical materials to produce or distribute, making the notion of bulk buying power completely irrelevant? Certainly, Amazon is a large and growing company, their scale does have decided advantages, but is there a similar advantage from scale for publishers in dealing with them? It certainly doesn’t appear that Hachette’s size is any kind of advantage. If it were, there’d be no dispute going on.

Penguin Random House is often pointed to as the direction of things to come, but should it be? Consolidation in the periodical sector, looking back now, clearly did considerable harm to those publications siphoned up in it. It looks like efficiency on the surface but in practice turned out to be just the opposite. The question I have now is does the counter effect of increased infrastructure costs of consolidation counteract any bulk savings? I say yes, and then some.

Hachette’s not arguing for profit so much as arguing for maintaining revenue to cover sizable infrastructure costs. The obvious counter of why aren’t you decreasing your infrastructure costs to support those margins doesn’t seem to be a very popular one. It is, however, a needed question to ask and answer. There’s a line of thought going around that the lower production costs for ebooks and POD should have no bearing on the end retail price. I find that as inexplicable as not understanding a multiplier effect from lower prices or the savings from trades based on actual out of pocket expenses. Of course those lower production costs are a factor in price. Not only that, they must be.

Smaller entities are currently taking full advantage of these lessened costs. The problem for large publishers is their sheer size changes the equation. For an independent, the lower costs are directly tied to both lower prices to readers and a higher margins to themselves. For the larger entities, the lower price is threatening because of the sizable portion of the cut must go to the infrastructure costs associated with such scale. They can’t risk the multiplier effect not taking place because they need the raw revenue stream to be somewhat constant to keep meeting payroll and keep the lights on. The conventional wisdom that bigger is better is increasingly looking to be just flat wrong in this atmosphere. And if you’re doing it as a publisher to “compete” with Amazon, you’re making an even bigger mistake, as well as displaying a fundamental misunderstanding of the word compete.

There are numerous reasons to believe that, in the current environment, it’s better to be a smaller entity. One is that your accounting doesn’t have to be so complex and standardized as to be inflexible. Really, the problem I had with trades was that what I was doing didn’t fit into the parameters of their accounting software, so instead of adapting the software they just stopped me from doing it. Admittedly, changing that software is a pain in the ass on a much smaller scale. On a giant corporate one, I can understand why it wouldn’t be your first choice. But that’s stupid! I was one magazine adding an extra $50 grand a year or so to our bottom line doing what I was doing. This company had dozens and dozens of publications. They chose to throw that away because of inertia. It was a big enough amount to be a pain but not a big enough amount to force any accomodations. And they somehow managed to make the budget sheets look better than they had when they were in reality, worse.

Another is that the costs of the bundle of services publishers offer are inflated well beyond what those same (or better) services cost in an open market. That’s why you see some trad writers, when discussing the costs of publishing on their own, will cite numbers anywhere from $15k to as high as $40k for those services. It’s what they’ve been told these things cost. The knowledge of the reality that this work actually can cost at least 10 times less outside the gated publisher world isn’t even available to them. My lower prices/higher margin sales can relatively quickly cover those costs where your lower royalties require many, many times the number of sales just to cover the overly-inflated expense figures. Publishers costs in this regard are inflated for the same reason they want to maintain higher prices on the books themselves, their huge infrastructure costs have to be paid from somewhere.

In the present environment, scale isn’t some kind of competitive panacea for suppliers to retailers. It’s an albatross of expense and inefficiency hanging about their necks that necessarily limit their ability to fully exploit emerging markets and bring costs down in flattening if not outright declining markets. Scale, which may have been useful in the past, is increasingly suffocating now.

It’s really a matter of intetests. Is it in a writer’s interest to sign on with one of these increasingly consolidating publishers? How much does their sheer size, and the need to pay for that, change the dynamic between their interests and yours? How much longer will it be before a critical mass of writers realize that they’re bearing much of the weight of paying for many of elements of the publisher that have nothing whatsoever to do with producing, marketing and selling their books? They’re paying their expenses using you for pennies on the dollar, while pocketing the gains from the diminished to near nonexistent ebook production costs. Just on a simple dollar for dollar examination, the publisher’s interests run almost completely counter to my own and that’s moving more into the publishers favor as each day passes.

When the print ad revenue collapse hit newspapers, the companies with the largest scale responded the only way they could, tens of thousands of people losing jobs in round after round of layoffs. This not only hurt their ability to handle the size they had become, it further handcuffed their digital growth, which is now evident in the fact that their digital revenues are also declining and managing little to no separation in the rate of loss as the decimated print sector. Their scale forced the cutbacks which in turn left them understaffed to handle the essential tasks and woefully short on money for experimentation and growth in digital or keeping forward-thinking folks in their employ. Their scale became a self-defeating necessity to maintain itself rather than the advantage it had initially appeared to be.

What happens if we have a bad holiday season in print books sales this year? Can Barnes & Noble even sustain through another massive hit? Publishers are already squeezing writers both with deep discount clauses on print books and low ebook royalties (not to mention shrinking advances). If a round of layoffs or two end up a reality, the value of their bundle of services declines even more than the over-inflated costs we’re already experiencing. In turn, these companies become even less efficient, and less productive as they become understaffed to handle their sheer size. And raising prices to recoup print declines simply is not going to possible.

In the future, bigger is better may no longer be true, even for Amazon. People seem to be under some impression that it takes a giant to slay a giant. But that’s not altogether accurate. As Amazon continues to grow and expand, it’s own scale is adding massive infrastructure costs by the day. It’s not going to be one big company that gets them (certainly not one big consolidated publisher). They’ll suffer the death of a thousand cuts as many small, nimble entities target various bits and pieces of what they do, undermining the whole by eroding key components of it wherever possible. And Amazon is in a position where it simply cannot raise prices to compensate. Trying to do so will drive customers away in droves which will, in turn, further exacerbate the infrastructure cost problem. It can try to further squeeze suppliers but there are limits to how far that kind of strategy can take you, too. If they get complacent and anything is going to get them, it will be their scale that’s they’re undoing.

Smaller Is Better appears to me to be the approaching mantra of the 21st century. As huge consolidated corporations fall by the wayside under the weight of their own infrastructure, the only question I have left is how long it will take for Wall Street and business schools to catch on. Consolidation and ever larger entities may seem like something beneficial to those businesses today but, ultimately, they might only be serving to break the scale.

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

This Week In Plagiarism: thieving across social media platforms

I spend a decent amount of time on Twitter.  It’s where I get most of my news and cultivate people to follow on the various subjects that interest me.  Well, the other day, I watched this next scenario play out and it’s one that I, frankly, never even considered.  Plagiarism is a significant problem online, particularly with people and sites swiping content from blogs pretty much wholesale, many times with no citation or links.  What hadn’t occurred to me was the possibility that some unscrupulous people would be swiping tweets from Twitter then passing off those words as their own in another social media platform like Facebook. Now I use Facebook as well, but I’ve never really considered it as a platform so much as a great way to avoid talking to people on the phone. But as you’ll see, some others don’t quite have that approach.

It all started when a twitter user handled Black Girl Dangerous (BGD) caught wind of the fact that someone had swiped one of her tweets and passed it off as their own on their Facebook page.


The “writer” in question, Mindy Fischer, also going by the Twitter handle @Buczchic, claims to be a freelance writer and a self professed bleeding heart liberal.  She also suggests we should proceed with caution.  You’ll soon find out why.  Meanwhile, BGD wasn’t taking this slight laying down, so she called out Fischer…


Notice how the time stamps show Fischer’s Facebook post came in over an hour after BGD’s original. Fishy, certainly. But maybe Fischer would have some excuse like, “I’m sorry, I accidentally deleted the credit for your work.” But then three hours go by without a peep of an explanation…


Finally, after close to another hour, Fischer responded on her Twitter feed. But rather than clear things up, she made things worse…


Well, that is a textbook example of how not to respond when someone catches you basically red-handed stealing their stuff. Needless to say, BDG didn’t respond well to her characterization of this “mishap.” As you’ll see, Fischer not only took the tweet word for word, she took the punctuation choices right along with it…




That was met with dead silence from Fischer. (That’s still the case two days later, per the check I just made on Fischer’s Twitter account).  Well, that and she took down the Facebook post in question. BGD was not satisfied, however, and did a little digging into some of Fischer’s other posts, starting with a joke about Ghandi…


Notice from the comments that it appears the citation to “unknown” was added only after someone started to question if it was her own work. But it goes on…


Well, at least she added an extra line at the beginning before clicking paste…


Here, she plainly shows a willingness to add some extra punctuation. But Jesus wasn’t high enough up the ladder for her. Fischer had a more divine source of inspiration in mind, too…


Getting a little closer here, more rearranging words than direct cut and paste, and she added a hashtag. I would also suggest she could possibly follow the advice in her hashtag. It certainly is time for someone to have a reality check. Here’s one more BGD dug up for good measure…


I suppose there could be explanations for any of these. The time stamps don’t seem to support Fischer, where they are available.  But she could actually be one of those unnamed twitter parody accounts, I guess, though I doubt she’s God or Republican Jesus given her self description. She’s a writer, so maybe she penned these tweets for them, or she got permission to use them somehow, although I’m not sure who would give her permission to pass them off as her own work or use them herself if she sold them to someone else.  What we know for sure is that she most definitely swiped BGD’s tweeet precisely as it appeared in the laziest way possible then gave a totally implausible and insulting explanation before signing off completely.  So whatever explanation she may have isn’t ringing particularly true.

As for BGD, this one last tweet sums things up nicely and, in my opinion, gives a great path forward for how real writers can deal with this kind of stuff…


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

A Poem in Honor of My Dog’s Memory (and various other things that piss me off)

So my dog died today and I wrote a poem in her memory. But first, a brief word of warning: the following contains copious amounts of foul language. If you’re someone who’s offended by such things, I wouldn’t recommend reading on. If not, fuck it, enjoy!


Published in: on July 26, 2014 at 12:55 am  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

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


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