I need to be clear as I start this post. We writers create intellectual property. We license our copyrights. We do not sell stories. In fact, the stories we tell, along with their titles, are often not copyrightable. The form in which we tell that story—the order of the events, the order of the words we use,—those things are copyrightable, but the basic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl discovers she’s fine on her own storyline can and does fuel a thousand books and movies. (That’s why so many memes over the holiday season made fun of the romance movies on Hallmark. Because the movies—all copyrighted in their own right, all different in the copyright sense—share a lot in common.)
If you don’t understand copyright and you consider yourself a professional writer, then you do not understand the business you are in. If you have published a novel, traditionally or indie, and you do not understand copyright, you are volunteering to get screwed over and over and over again. I say this often, and I’m saying it loudly again, because the trend for 2019 and beyond is that every organization you do business with will try to take a piece (if not all) of your copyright on each and every one of your projects.
Your job is to protect that copyright.
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Forbes actually published an article in fall of 2018 titled “What Authors Should Do When Their Publisher Closes.” You can click over there if you want. The advice isn’t good, because as someone in the article says, what an author should do varies based on the author’s contract. And if the author has an agent, then they’re probably screwed. If the author doesn’t understand copyright, then they’re definitely screwed.
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I recommend publishing indie, because that’s the best way to protect yourself and your writing income. You’ll have a career if you do that. Your career might vanish on you if you try to remain traditional. Or, rather, you will write as a “hobby” while you make your living doing something else.
Yes, I’m being harsh, but that’s because the intellectual property apocalypse that I’ve been warning you about is upon us. The trends are there, and the signs that traditional publishing (and all of the other big entertainment organizations) know about the value of intellectual property are becoming clearer and clearer.
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For years now, the Big 5 traditional publishers have had contracts that essentially transfer the entire copyright of a novel from the author to them. The contracts don’t say that explicitly, but when you read the contract as a complete document (which is how you should read it), you realize that the sum total of what the clauses mean is that the writer retains no part of the copyright, and is only entitled to a tiny percentage of the money that copyright earns.
The reason these contracts changed about a decade ago had nothing to do with publishing and everything to do with mergers. As these publishing companies became part of big international conglomerates, many of them entertainmentconglomerates, the legal teams redrafted the contracts to do the copyright grabs.
Most writers had no idea what they were signing, and most of their agents didn’t either. Agents are not trained lawyers. A handful of the big agencies have lawyers on staff, but most of those agencies are concerned with making the agency money, not with making the writer money. So a lot of the contracts are structured to pay and protect the agent, while bilking the writer.
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Up until a year or so ago, most of the Big Five continued to operate like traditional publishing companies have since the 1990s—a focus on publishing a lot of titles, hoping that some will stick and become bestsellers. But that strategy isn’t working, and sales are down precipitously.
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[Simon & Schuster] has been in a media conglomerate since the 1980s. I’m not going to go through its tortured history, which runs from Paramount to Viacom and beyond, but realize this: It became part of the CBS Corporation officially in 2005. Around then, it became impossible to get book rights reverted, which is one of the tricks that is recommended for writers in the Forbes article I cited above. (How 1995. Sigh.)
S&S has experimented with electronic books since the 1990s. Dean and I personally made a lot of money in the early 2000s when S&S realized they hadn’t licensed e-rights for Star Trek books. (Dean and I wrote a bunch of them in the 1990s). S&S has tried to have a self-publishing arm since 2012, and they’re doing a lot of things that require writers to pay for services that publishers used to provide.
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The more IP a company acquires, the more its value goes up. Even if they don’t create anything from that IP. Acquiring a novel’s copyright—with all its potential spinoffs, TV shows, toys, comics—increases a company’s value tremendously.
Read that paragraph again, because the information therein is the key to this whole piece.
The more IP a company acquires, the more its value goes up. Your novel is IP. If they acquire it, their bottom line goes up, even if they never do anything with that IP. Got that?
That’s why S&S stopped, in 2000 or so, reverting the rights to the novels they acquired. Those novels equal more earnings potential—and they allow the company to maintain a value that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
I’ve been warning writers about this copyright grab by corporations for some time, but it was easy to ignore me because the Big 5 have not been (for the most part) exploiting (the legal term for developing or making use of) that copyright.
S&S finally is. That’s what Simon & Schuster’s CEO Carolyn Reidy’s heady year-end report was really all about. She called 2018 “the most successful year in Simon & Schuster’s history,” and yet she didn’t cite a single print bestseller as something that caused the success.
Instead, she touted the rise in audio . . . as well as a mention that sent a little shiver through me.
…[backlist sales now] comprise a higher portion of our revenue than at any time in memory…while readers wanting the tried and true is an industry-wide phenomenon, our concerted effort during the last few years to acquire books with the potential for long-term backlist sales has yielded dividends.
This article does not specify what exactly she means by “backlist sales.” Does she mean actual ebook and print sales, or other licensing, such as foreign rights and so on? Clearly S&S is exploiting the audio rights clauses in their contracts.
What is clear, however, is that a big traditional publisher has finally figured out that not only does their backlist have value in raising the company’s worth, but it also has earnings potential that can be exploited in 2019.
Why does this send a chill through me? Because if one traditional publisher learns it, the others will learn it as well. And the ability of writers who have sold their work into traditional publishers to get the rights reverted will go down to almost nil.
Big traditional publishers will finally join their counterparts in the entertainment industry—the movie/TV companies, the music studios, the game companies—in demanding control of every aspect of the copyright from the original author.
Which means that if an author signs one of those agreements, the author will get pennies on the dollar (if that) for any rights—audio, movie, TV—rather than the kind of earnings writers could have gotten as recently as 10 years ago.
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And those of you who licensed mass market rights a few years ago, thinking you’d get your ebooks into stores, you probably already signed away most of the copyright, particularly if you went with Harlequin or Simon & Schuster.
As usual, Kris incorporates a lot of intelligent business thought and advice into the OP (and her other posts in this series).
As PG has mentioned before, he has negotiated, drafted and/or reviewed a great many contracts during his legal career, including some large technology copyright and patent licensing agreements. As he has also mentioned before, the typical contracts between authors and traditional publishers are some of the most unfair and one-sided agreements he has seen.
In a prior era during which it was impossible for an author’s works to reach any sort of meaningful audience without a publisher to cover the costs of printing books and provide meaningful access to buyers for large numbers of physical bookstores, perhaps the value of a publisher’s services was an extremely large portion of the income generated by sales of a book.
However, in an age in which:
Amazon is the largest English language bookseller in the world; and
Opens its electronic doors to self published authors on terms substantially equivalent to those it provides commercial publishers; and
Ebooks have the highest profit margin of any edition of a book a publisher sells; and
Ebook editing, formatting and cover design of a quality comparable to that provided by a commercial publisher can be had for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars;
the real value of a publisher for a typical author compared to the effective cost of a publisher to that author has declined precipitously.
PG was about to discuss the value of branding for either an ebook or a printed book, but he will be uncharacteristically brief.
Does anyone go to an online or offline bookstore seeking out a Random House book? Of course not. They’re looking for an author, a genre, etc.
With respect to promoting and selling books, which brand name is most valuable, James Patterson’s or Little, Brown and Company’s?
Without singling out any particular literary agent or agency, PG will say, as a general observation, that agents famous and obscure don’t do anything significant to improve the contract terms for publishing contracts other than increasing the amount of the advance on some occasions. In particular, agents rarely if ever do anything to address the issues Kris discusses in the OP.
In some types of contracts — consumer loans, for example — federal and/or state legislatures have passed laws that prevent commercial lenders from including some contract provisions that are unfair or harmful to borrowers. Compared to the number of individuals who take out loans to purchase a house, automobile or dishwasher, however, authors are a tiny constituency and elected officials have much bigger fish to fry than commercial publishers.
However, perhaps as a result of such consumer protections, some authors may believe they are somehow protected from unfair provisions in publishing contracts between themselves and large publishers. That belief is incorrect.
Some of the most unfair provisions in a typical publishing contract are presented in the most innocuous manner imaginable.
Finally, there is nurturing. Publishers don’t just produce books. They nurture. Literary agents also provide nurturing in case publishers fall short in any way.
Like a baby duckling, a baby author needs to be nurtured and petted and encouraged and gently guided if she/he is to grow into a beautiful swan.
Who better to nurture such a delicate creature than a Kommanditgesellschaft auf Aktien headquartered in Gütersloh?
Off the top of his head, other than publishing, PG can’t ever remember ever having a business discussion that included the word nurture or any of its variants.
PG is reminded of a quote attributed to former president Harry S. Truman, “If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.”
PG suggests that if you want someone to watch over you, steer clear of the publishing business.
Raleigh-based businessman A.G. Riddle had no writing experience when he was inspired to write a book.
Riddle was working as a tech consultant, helping to get Internet startups off the ground, when he decided to take a chance and write and self-publish his first book, “The Atlantis Gene” in March 2013.
“My first book was almost completely homemade,” Riddle said. “I wrote the book, did my own edits and then my mom edited the book; she was a retired eighth-grade English teacher, and I made the cover myself. It was OK, the current covers are a lot better.
“In March of 2013, I put it out there, my now-wife put it on Facebook and hounded her friends to read this book,” he added. “That’s how it sort of got started.”
Riddle self-published “The Atlantis Gene” through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and said being able to self-publish gave him more control of his new career.
“Writing the first one is certainly the toughest, but there’s never been a better time to release your novel, in my opinion,” he said.
“The Atlantis Gene” became the first book of “The Origin Mystery,” a trilogy that has sold more than 2 million copies in the United States. Riddle released his fourth novel, “Departure” in the fall of 2015. “Departure” follows the survivors of a flight that takes off in the present and crash-lands in a changed world. 20th Century Fox is developing “Departure” for a feature film. Several of his books have been picked up for film development.
“So, four of them are an option for feature films, so we’ll see where that goes,” Riddle said.
For those outside of the United States, the Midwest is experiencing extremely cold temperatures today.
UPDATE: A Canadian visitor to TPV suggested that a great many people who live outside of the United States have no idea where or what the Midwest is. It’s generally defined as a region of the north-central United States around the Great Lakes and the upper Mississippi Valley and considered to include Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. The northernmost Midwestern states abut Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
From The Wall Street Journal:
The lowest temperatures in decades brought life to a near standstill for millions in the Midwest and beyond as a polar vortex blanketed the region, closing schools, businesses and even halting mail delivery.
The icy blast prompted governors to declare states of emergency in Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois as windchill temperatures fell to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit across much of the Chicago area and near minus 70 across parts of the upper Midwest. Thousands of flights were canceled and Amtrak canceled all trains in and out of Chicago.
“We haven’t seen temperatures like this in 20 years,” said Chris Foltz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “When you get wind chills of 50 below it’s life threatening.”
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The temperature of minus 24 degrees in Chicago broke a record for Jan. 30 and neared the low set on Jan. 20, 1985, when the temperature dipped to negative 27 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.
Public and private schools were closed across the upper Midwest along with museums, zoos and churches in Chicago. Some university campuses were closed, including Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Streets were empty as scores of businesses closed or asked employees to work from home.
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The agency said the coldest spot was Buffalo, N.D., with a reading of minus 49 degrees and the coldest windchill was in Park Rapids, Minn., at minus 65.
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Over half of scheduled flights to and from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and 60% at Midway International Airport were canceled, according to flight-tracking website FlightAware. The site said that in all, more than 2,400 U.S. flights had been grounded as of early Wednesday afternoon.
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The U.S. Postal Service canceled mail delivery in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and parts of Kansas, Missouri, Montana and Nebraska.
Having lived in Chicago and Minnesota during very cold weather, PG empathizes with visitors to TPV who are experiencing these temperatures. PG remembers that when the heating system in his abode was operating at full capacity and the interior temperature was slowly declining, it wasn’t a great feeling.
PG suggests it’s a good day to stay inside and read. Or write.
Last week at Winter Institute 14 in Albuquerque, N.M., five of the past presidents of the American Booksellers Association sat for a panel discussion moderated by ABA CEO Oren Teicher, focusing on where the industry is at the moment and where it is headed. The conversation echoed several others at Winter Institute, where it became clear that the ongoing collaboration between publishers and booksellers to reduce the cost of goods and streamline delivery times is central to the profitability of many booksellers.
Michael Tucker, ABA president from 2009 to 2011, and president and CEO of Books Inc., headquartered in San Francisco, with 11 stores in California, acknowledged that this key relationship is “in a better place” than it had been during the period following the settlement between the ABA and the publishers and bookstore chains for anti-trust in 2001. For several years thereafter, tensions in the industry were high. “The challenge was to open up a dialog with the publishers,” said Tucker.
Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstore with locations in Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., concurred that the relationship and the general bookselling environment has improved, but she also offered a cautionary note: “When I have to take out a case of books to replace them with tea towels or socks so i can meet the minimum wage increase or put in new floors, that worries me.” She said that young booksellers in particular are vulnerable. “They say [the economics] don’t pencil out.”
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Several times at Winter Institute Teicher and others pointed out that sales in the indie channel have been improving overall, with sale up some 5% in 2018. That said, there are still issues, particularly among the bottom third of bookstores, which are averaging a net loss of 8% per year, according to the most recent ABACUS data presented by the ABA earlier last week. One supposition is that profits are rising due to an increase in sales of non-book items and smaller footprint stores are struggling to raise profitability as a result of their inability to stock as many of these higher margin items.
Mitchell Kaplan, president of Books & Books, headquartered in Coral Gables, Fla., who held the ABA presidency from 2004 to 2006, said that the path to profits leads through community work. “We need to look at what the challenges are for small business today, whether that is rent, bad landlords, or a main street that is falling apart. We need to figure out for our communities how to sharpen what we do.” He pointed to the grants the city of San Francisco recently extended to small businesses, including a handful of booksellers, as one possible model.
Books about language usage, including “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” by Lynne Truss, and “Woe Is I,” by Patricia T. O’Conner, constitute a metaliterature, in which the writing must prove the writer’s qualifications to teach writing. The magician makes a magic show out of explaining his tricks. Sometimes, as with William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White’s “The Elements of Style,” the music of the prose is what recommends the volume long after many of its prescriptions have been discarded.
A new entrant in this genre, “Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” seems happily aware of its own planned obsolescence. The author is Benjamin Dreyer, the longtime copy chief at Random House. He grants that his rules are sometimes arbitrary (e.g., hyphenate “light-headed” but not “lighthearted”) and often fluid (although most sentences don’t benefit from the passive voice, he points out, some do). But he’s a true believer, full of passionate opinions about “actually” (never say it), house style (try not to have one “visible from space,” he advises this publication), and italics (unfortunately straining to the eye, and redolent of the sorts of interior monologues and dream sequences that readers are likely to skip). Dreyer himself is a charming, chatty narrator with a soft spot for both digressive footnotes and name-dropping. He dislikes scare quotes and lauds parentheses for their “conveyance of elbow-nudging joshingness.” He is just persnickety enough.Dreyer’s through line is that most rules have exceptions: “There are fewer absolutes in writing than you might think,” he finds. His book, which apotheosizes the case-by-case basis, compares the copy-editing process to “a really thorough teeth cleaning,” at the end of which the text reads “even more like itself than it did when I got to work on it.” This is nice, but it is also a theremin-spooky late-capitalist metaphor. The copy editor performs service work for the writer by fine-tuning the writer’s personal voice or brand. The emphasis on grammar as a tool for self-expression, not just communication, feels evocative of an era in which online dogmatists periodically go scorched earth on punctuation marks or parts of speech that offend their sensibilities. (“The semicolon is pointless, and it’s ruining your writing,” one such piece asserted, setting off plumes of semicolons all over Twitter.)
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Wallace’s 2001 essay was premised on the notion that, after standard English was disgraced as a “shibboleth of the Establishment,” language snoots needed to come up with an entirely new reason for people to follow their rules. (It didn’t help, Wallace observed, that the old ways could be “archaic and incommodious and an all-around pain in the ass.”) A similar crisis of motivation might be said to haunt the language snobs of 2019. Perhaps we insist on usage norms to reclaim a lost sense of agency: These sentence fragments I have shored up against my ruin. But why insist on good manners when you can travel so far without them?
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Dreyer’s attention to gusto in language use is magical in a way that resists full explication. Like life, writing is an accumulation of choices, some deliberate but most only hazily understood. The language we handle moves under our touch. We feel around in it until a mysterious clicking starts, and then we wrestle the stuff into what we hope is proper grammar and wait for it to set. For Dreyer to wade into this process with news of pleasure is lovely.
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