Friday, July 25, 2014

The Ministry of Authors United

Shoveling back the bullshit peddled by the "Authors Guild" was already a full-time job; and now there's "Authors United" to add to the load. But Joe Konrath and I do what we can, including a new post over at Joe's blog. Here's an excerpt...

Here’s what we know.

1.  Legacy publishers are enjoying record profits. And those profits are “coming entirely off the backs of authors” because they’re being driven by digital sales, in which publishers keep even more per unit and share with authors even less.

2.  Even “Authors Guild” pitchman Richard Russo has grudgingly admitted that, you know, um, maybe 17.5% might be a tad low for authors, and that “this needs to change” (though apparently, it will have to change all by itself, not because of anything Russo et al might do about it).

3.  “Authors United” progenitor Douglas Preston has boldly stated thatWe have many loyal and committed readers. They listen when we speak. That represents power; perhaps even enough power to face down one of the world's largest corporations.” Let’s leave aside Preston’s possible conflation of people enjoying what he writes and caring about what he says: regardless, he clearly believes Authors United has the power to face down enormous corporations.

So… the Authors Guild and Authors United (so many organizations with “Authors” in the title! I’m concerned the Ministry of Love and Ministry of Truth will be jealous) are going to use that power to demand better terms from their publishers on behalf of all authors, right?

Apparently not. Nothing more than the odd mealy-mouthed and pro forma acknowledgment of legacy publishing’s ongoing royalty landgrab in digital (and on legacy publishing’s various other abusive terms -- the length-of-copyright terms; the twice-yearly payments; the prohibitions on authors publishing other works -- not a word). How can that be?

To understand why the mandarins of the Authors Guild and Authors United don’t give a damn about the crappy terms legacy publishing doles out in lockstep to the majority of authors, you have to understand one simple thing. Which is that:

A tiny percentage of authors gets a significantly higher defacto digital royalty rate than everyone else.

Ace legacy-publishing shill Scott Turow himself, in a rare moment of clarity and candor, acknowledged as much:

Best-selling authors have the market power to negotiate a higher implicit e-book royalty in our advances, even if our publishers won’t admit it.

(By the way, to see how just about everything else Turow said in the linked article is cringe-worthy nonsense, you have to read this terrific TechDirt takedown.)

What Turow means is that the vast majority of authors receive an advance that their publisher wants and expect to earn out. But a select few receive an advance so large it’s understood it will never earn out. If you never earn out, it doesn’t matter what your nominal royalty rate might have been; the multi-million-dollar payout you receive upfront becomes your full payment for the book.

And now you know why the “Authors Guild” and “Authors United” are utterly uninterested in taking on the Big Five over the cartel’s astonishly low lockstep 17.5% digital royalty rate. For the people who boost these organizations, that low rate doesn’t apply. They get a special, under-the-table rate; the low rate applies to the rest of us. And those vintage 17th-century twice-yearly payments (by contrast, Amazon pays its authors every month)? They don’t care about those, either, because the one-percenters aren’t paid in royalties -- they receive a monster cash bolus upfront. And the forever license terms, the non-competes? If someone were paying you millions upfront for a book, you might not care about those, either.

Now look. I make a good living from my writing and I don’t begrudge anyone who’s making even more. Good for them. What does irritate me, though, is when these perfumed princes posture as advocates of the rank and file. That’s nothing more than self-serving, propagandistic bullshit. They say the system needs to be reformed, they say they have the power to reform it… and what do they do? They cavalierly dismiss Amazon’s offer to create a pool to compensate Hachette authors who suffer losses because of the ongoing Amazon/Hachette dispute. They dismiss a follow-up Amazon offer to give Hachette authors 100% of revenues until the dispute is resolved. They dismiss yet another Amazon offer to take those revenues and give them to the literacy charity of Authors United’s choice. They ask nothing of Hachette, ever, nor of any other legacy publisher. They never even attempt to address the fact that Hachette has been dragging its feet in the negotiations since the beginning of the year.

All this power, and it doesn’t even occur to them to say to Hachette, “You want us to back you up in your fight with Amazon? We want a press release from you promising to change the following policies for all authors by X date. No press release? No support.” That’s the kind of behavior you’d expect to see from an “Authors Guild” even remotely worthy of the name.

But you don’t see that. Instead, a bunch of plutocrat authors are going to drop a hundred grand -- about the equivalent of anyone else buying a cup of coffee at 7-Eleven -- to take out a New York Times ad castigating Amazon. That’s how they’re using their “power” on behalf of all authors.

It’s as though these people don’t recognize something fundamental: they sell through Amazon, but they sell to the Big Five. It’s the latter where they could have real influence -- if they wanted to exercise it. But it’s so much easier to pretend to be doing something on behalf of all authors… by bashing their publishers’ customer rather than standing up to their own customers.

Or, if these authors really do think Amazon is so bad, they could publicly call on their publishers to remove their titles from Amazon. It wouldn’t hurt Amazon directly, but a small demonstration of the courage of their authorial convictions would enable people to take them a little more seriously.

But why should we expect anything other than what they’re doing? The legacy system has served these people well; it would be betting against human nature to expect them to want to change it, let alone to actually try.

When James Patterson and Douglas Preston and Richard Russo and Scott Turow tell you they’re trying to protect your interests, they’re conning you. Whether they’re also conning themselves, I don’t know. Don’t judge them by their rhetoric; judge them by their behavior. And by their behavior you can see they have no interest at all in improving publishing for everyone. Only in preserving it for themselves.

Read the whole thing at Joe's blog...


Unknown said...

Good post - you make some good points especially about the 'super-authors' receiving higher rates than the less -so.

Mark Terry said...

It seems to me that the bigger legacy authors can say these things all they want (and their agents as well), but at some point they have to face a certain reality.

If a traditionally published author sells 100,000 ebooks at $3.99 for their 17.5% royalty, they will earn $69,825.

If a self-published author sells 100,000 ebooks at $3.99 for their 75% royalty, they will earn $299,250.

At some point, unless they're total idiots, they need to look at their publishers and ask, "So, what EXACTLY are you doing for me with your nurturing, cover design, layout and supposed marketing efforts to warrant that extra $229,425?"

Bob said...

I've begun to understand these authors are so far out of reality it's sad. They've been coddled by NY for so long they think it's the norm. Totally agree if they had any guts they'd demand their books get pulled from Amazon. But they're simply cowards.

I also notice how none of them respond, especially Scott Turow, but simply post manifestos then go back to their mansions.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Barry, for posting this! So tired of the "smoke and mirrors" being peddled by the elite few! I used to think I wanted to get a book deal with the Trad World, but the more I read, the more I'm going back on that statement....

Obfuscation is the name of the game, not just in government....

Jacklyn Cornwell said...

This is the same load of manure that a one-time friend gave me when I suggested she negotiate better terms, not with her publisher but with her agent. The agent's fees and charging for the cost of doing business while not having done anything to promote, sell, or otherwise vet the deal for her first book was nothing short of criminal. She had presented the book to the agent before anyone wanted it and the agent gave her a flat no. I helped her get published with Writer's Digest Publications and they offered her a sweet deal, which she then took back to the agent, hat in hand and on her knees, to ask if the agent would reconsider. Why wouldn't she? She didn't have to do anything but collect her 15% and an annual fee, among other usurious contractual terms, for doing what we had already done -- get a contract for the book.

I questioned the author and asked why she didn't negotiate better terms for her contract with the agent. She said it was because she was a nobody and only when she was a published somebody would she have the power to negotiate anything. Better to take what she could get and move on.

And she did.

The agent finally dumped the author when the proposed books in the series fell through and still collects her 15% and the author has no agent. She didn't have much of an agent to begin with since the agent did nothing to promote the series or the author's other books.

It is the same thing with legacy published authors, known, midlist, and unknown, who believe the only way to be somebody is with one of the Big-6 behind them. They don't realize their power even at the beginning. They likely never will.

Michael J. Sullivan said...

Barry, I couldn't agree more. If "Author United" really wants to do something that would be meaningful for writer's why don't they work on:

* Getting contracts to be fix-term rather than life-of-copyright with a ridiculously low threshold for "in-print" determination.

* Changing ebook royalty rates to be at a minimum 50% of net.

* Squashing non-compete clauses that are often written in ways that violate "right to work" legislation that insists that non-competes must be limited in time and geography. (I don't know about you but a non-compete that goes for "life of copyright" doesn't seem very "limited to me."

I think we need to start three petitions for each of these. I don't have the megaphone that you, Joe, and Hugh have but if you can get the petitions started, I'll certainly do all I can to get authors to sign it...and we'll see if those of "Author's United" will put sign their name to these causes which really WILL do something to change the egregious state for traditionally published authors.