Writers And Their Business: Don’t Assume It’s All For One

iStockphoto / Nomadsoul1
iStockphoto / Nomadsoul1

‘Authors Earn Their Living As Freelancers’

There’s a sense these days that the centricity of the author is becoming more convincing in publishing. Or maybe to put it more accurately, it’s becoming harder to think that the centricity of the author won’t be the contextual understanding in publishing some day.

Nevertheless, it’s also possible to discern a striking division in how that centricity is being considered among some of our authors.

“Why do publishers insist on offering their newest partners more than a hundred conditions so dubious that they’ll quickly back down on them if asked?”
The Authors Guild, Fair Contracts Initiative Preview

We hear and say so much about the self-publishing sector, of course. We watch the independent authors’ community advancing, and we all hope for many more promising moves toward collective professionalism and visibility.

I was glad to have Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Business Musings: Gaming The System when I wrote my own piece Gaming The System: Amazon At Home And Abroad at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook. Rusch writes of some writers, system-gamers, having left the field last summer when Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) Select opened Kindle Unlimited, I join her in thinking it would be good if more system-gamers leave this summer as KDP Select per-page-read payments are instituted. She’s talking about a helpful attrition of people who “always want the ‘trick.’ They’re the ones who want to make a fast buck.” It’s hard to think of how any legitimate author could disagree — and I use the term “legitimate” to mean a writer whose interest is in creating good literature of any genre for fair sale to a seriously engaged readership.

And yet, there’s a peculiar schism that tends to show up when we look at efforts to improve the lot of traditionally publishing authors alongside the progress of the self-publishers.

First, let’s note that both in London and in New York right now, there are campaigns under way that seek to improve things a bit for traditionally publishing authors.

The Society of Authors’ Focus On Festivals

In the UK, the Society of Authors is carrying on with a robust conversation about book festivals and payment for authors who appear at them. You can read about this effort in SoA Working with Festivals To Ensure Fair Treatment Of Authors. This brief but nicely phrased article explains:

We appreciate that festivals are wonderful public showcases for literature and that authors are generally pleased to be invited and often enjoy taking part. But all too often the authors themselves end up unrewarded or out-of-pocket for their efforts. The SoA believes all authors should be paid for making public appearances and with festivals booming, and lucrative sponsorship deals in many cases, there is no excuse for authors, who are the main draw, to miss out on the profits – especially where others involved are being paid.

There are many bookish festivals in the UK, as in other parts of Europe, especially at this time of year, and this is certainly a worthy issue.

Authors need to be able to make appearances when invited — after all, we chant night and day that they must be in touch with readers — and yet, as the SoA describes, having to make such appearances with no financial support can be very difficult:

Authors earn their living as freelancers and giving appearances means the loss of other work and income. They must be properly compensated for their time, including that taken up by preparation and travel, and the cost of transport and accommodation must be considered. Payment in kind is not an acceptable alternative and authors should not feel ungrateful for asking for a fee, or be put under any pressure to waive payment. Events are also sometimes recorded for public dissemination or used in other ways and in such cases payment should also reflect this.

And you can see here the letter of inquiry that the Society has sent to festival organizers to get a better picture of how the events are handling the presence of authors in their settings. It’s a highly worthwhile exercise.

The US Authors Guild And Contract Reform

Here at Thought Catalog, I wrote about the Authors Guild’s “Fair Contract Initiative” earlier this month. I pointed out that  the digital dynamic makes it possible for author-publisher relations to be brought more easily to the attention of the readership. As authors build their relations with reader-consumers much more directly than they did in the past, readers interacting with them feel closer, more involved, more interested. This is natural and part of the richness of the ground-level reader contact frequently attributed to the self-publishing world.  Obviously, the Guild would like to take advantage of that, if its membership successfully shares with interested readers the details of what they see as contractual problems.

In that story, I noted that the Guild’s new executive director, Mary Rasenberger, said she expected to see a new article posted about the issues on the Guild’s site, and it now has joined the earlier material. One of Rasenberger’s most compelling points is that unagented authors are at the greatest risk when trying to negotiate for themselves. The “standard contracts” used by the industry, she asserts, are loaded with what the Guild deems inappropriate clauses that  most authors will not — without the help of an agent or attorney — know to question in discussions with a publisher.

The newer article, The Authors Guild Fair Contract Intiative: A Preview, returns to this point with gusto:

Why do publishers insist on offering their newest partners more than a hundred conditions so dubious that they’ll quickly back down on them if asked? It largely boils down to unequal bargaining power and historic lethargy. Anxious to get their works published, authors may wrongly believe that the contract their editors assure them as “standard” is the only deal available, take it or leave it. And much of that “standard” language has been around for years thanks to institutional inertia; as long as somebody signs an unfair clause that favors the publisher, the firm has no interest in modifying it. But even contracts negotiated by agents and lawyers often include longstanding “gotchas” that live on only because “it’s always been that way.”

Pointing to just how vulnerable the unagented author might be in such a situation, the Guild writes:

One agented contract we’ve seen includes at least 96 changes from the original “standard” language, plus seven additional clauses and two additional riders. Every one of those changes is a point that the agent has negotiated in the author’s favor.

And the new article goes on to list some of the main areas of contention that the Guild will be raising during its campaign. Quoting those points (there is explanatory text for each):

  • Half of net proceeds is the fair royalty rate for ebooks

  • A publishing contract should not be forever

  • A manuscript’s acceptability should not be a matter of whim

  • Advances must remain advances

  • Publishers should share legal risk

  • Non-compete clauses must let the authors write

  • Options must be fair and paid for

  • The author must have final say

  • Payments must move into the 21st century

  • “Special” book sales must not be at the author’s expense

The Guild’s piece also includes a call for input:

We’d like to hear from you. If a publisher has handed you especially egregious contract terms, please let us know…But if your contract includes a non-disclosure clause, please don’t violate it. By the way, we don’t like those clauses, either.

Anyone interested in the evolution of author-publisher relations should find some interest in how the Guild proceeds with its initiative, and I, for one, would be interested in hearing from publishers about their reactions to the campaign.

In its role as author advocate, the Guild finishes:

Ultimately, we hope this initiative will create a climate of “just say no” to egregious contractual terms. We’d like you, the authors, to understand what you’re giving away when you sign your contracts, what you’re getting in return, and to make self-interested judgments about what’s fair. Of course, you just want to sign that agreement and get on with writing, but in the long run it’s in your interest to take a deep breath and to stick up for your rights, and for those of your fellow authors.

‘Screw The AG’

What’s interesting, relative to this look at the traditional authors’ sector and its concerns, is the negative tone of some responses to the Guild’s effort that surfaced after I’d published our first article here on it.

David P. Vandagriff, whose The Passive Voice blog is such a popular commentary spot for independent authors, was kind enough to post part of the  Thought Catalog piece for his readers to consider. His own note pointed out a key question in the Guild’s approach, that of whether author-reader relations really can be expected to generate readership interest in the contract situation for authors:

PG can’t see anything wrong with the Authors Guild trying to spread the word among readers about terrible publishing contract provisions. However, even a contract geek like PG doubts whether this topic will be of interest to anyone outside the traditional publishing world.

He went on to assert that self-publishing is the right retort to perceived unfair contracts in traditional publishing. And he articulated the Amazonian alternative well :

A far more effective response to unfair traditional publishing contracts is one that’s been underway for a few years – self-publish and don’t worry about what the dinosaur publishing would like you to sign. Don’t worry about whether your agent is one of those who really fight for her/his client or just wants to get the contract signed and the advance delivered as soon as possible.

Amazon is not a perfect company, but the fundamental proposition it offers to authors is a continuing agreement between two willing parties. If either Amazon or the author decides the agreement has stopped working for them, one or both can take their bat and ball and go home. Authors can fire Amazon as their distributor for any reason or no reason at any time.

This is a very able statement of the indie viewpoint on the relative merits of working in traditional contracts vs. working in self-publishing, as leveraged by the leading platform, Amazon. This is the essential “just walk away” argument, stated with the clean efficiency that Vandagriff normally deploys.

What follows in the comments, however, is something more emotive. Many comments there reflect one of the biggest problems that the Authors Guild faces today: sharp animosity from many writers. To say there’s a lot of mistrust of the Guild’s intents and efforts is understatement.

“The brass at the AG doesn’t care about their authors; they care about their existing partnerships and lucrative 1%-er deals.”
Comment at ThePassiveVoice.com

With its president, the author Roxana Robinson, in place only for a bit more than a year — and with executive director Rasenberger, like Vandagriff an attorney, aboard only some six months ago — the current regime at the Authors Guild apparently has not yet been accepted as something more welcome to many than the widely disparaged Scott Turow administration before it.

And rather than rallying to the support of traditionally publishing colleagues in this new contract-reform initiative, many self-publishers — who are welcome, we should note, as members of the Guild if they’d like to join — are quickly hostile to its efforts. Excerpting some of the comments on the Passive Voice post:

Unless the AG is actually going to take some sort of active role in this (and not just tell the readers to “Go get ’em!”), it doesn’t matter what they say. Once again, screw the AG.

Readers. Will. Not. Care. They probably won’t even notice. How many readers go to the Guild website, anyway?…

Oh. My.
I guess it is official: tradpub sales are down.
Enough that the country club gang is hurting.
So the old terms are starting to grate…

Sorry, but this is just AG blowing smoke and shifting mirrors to hide something else. What? I have no idea, but this isn’t for the benefit of any writers (other than possibly the top 1% of AG — maybe.)…

The brass at the AG doesn’t care about their authors; they care about their existing partnerships and lucrative 1%-er deals.

If the AG truly cared, they’d call for a 1-year or 2-year strike on new deals, and they’d publish a detailed account of how best to self-publish, which editors and cover artists to use, and appeal to media outlets like NYT et al to cover the dissatisfaction with major publishers.

The comments at Passive Voice are not unanimously hostile to the Guild. One respondent writes:

Dear PG, you say
“However, even a contract geek like PG doubts whether this topic will be of interest to anyone outside the traditional publishing world.”

Please count me as a counterexample. (But I know I’m not your usual reader too)

Oh, and it looks to me more productive than simply asking readers to stop buying from a reseller or an other ;P

Another offers an interesting perspective on the publishing house as intermediary:

There’s so many trad pub authors that I would happily buy direct from. It was like when iTunes first started selling music, and the artist got to keep most of that dollar I spent on their song. I’m happy to support people who make products I like! I love buying indie, because I know that the author is getting 70%, and I’m helping their rankings. Now, if I could figure out a way to buy the next Dresden book straight from Jim, I’d gladly hand him 20 bucks. The experience is worth it to me. It makes me bleed inside to know that he’s probably only getting a buck.

On the whole, however, the commentary is staunchly negative and doesn’t seem to find much interest in traditionally publishing authors; the point of interest for most respondents in this forum, at least, is the Guild, itself.

As was heard repeatedly during the Hachette-Amazon contract renewal ordeal of last year, the Guild is ridiculed by many writers as what they say is an elitist organization that protects and promotes the earnings of its biggest blockbuster writers. The presentation of this new Fair Contract Initiative is meant to support not big-shot authors but newcomers and unagented authors. The Guild is making this abundantly clear. The blockbusters obviously need no help with contracts, after all. The Guild’s initiative is presented as something meant to serve the other end of the traditionally published spectrum: the unprotected and inexperienced authors being handed contracts by publishing houses without the aid of agents’ or attorneys’ mediation.

This does not seem, as yet, to impress some Guild critics in the independent authors sector.

However successful the Guild can be in guiding readership interest to the traditional contract issues encountered by writers remains to be seen. But what we can tell now is that some in the indie-author community are not prepared to give the new management of the Guild much of a chance to prove the efficacy of its contract initiative, even though that initiative is themed by the Guild on assisting the neediest of its membership. TC mark

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