Publishing has a new question to ponder this week: what could Taylor Swift do for us? Swift’s triumph: she got a tech giant to change its mind.
In an open letter to Apple, Swift said she was withholding the record, 1989, from Apple’s new music streaming service, Apple Music, because she was unhappy with the three-month free trial offered to subscribers. “I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company,” wrote Swift. “Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing.”
The blog prompted the following response from Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services,
“#AppleMusic will pay artist for streaming, even during customer’s free trial period”
“We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists. Love, Apple”
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Speaking to Billboard magazine Cue said they had already been been hearing “a lot of concern from indie artists about not getting paid during the three-month trial period” before Swift spoke out. Apple had sought to ameliorate the three-month royalty free window by paying a higher rate after the initial period. Now it will pay artists during the free period, and retain the higher fee afterwards. Still, Apple can afford it.
Could a little bit of Swiftian kick-back help the book business too? It is worth contrasting Apple’s manoeuvre with the changes Amazon made to how it will pay indie writers signed up to its all-you-can-read Kindle Unlimited (KU) and the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL). The change (in brief) is that from 1st July authors with books in those schemes will no longer be paid their percentage of Amazon’s pool of money once 10% of a book has been read, they will now be paid based on what the number of pages read, after the Amazon-mandated “Start Reading Location” (SRL).
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Much will be written once the impact of the change hits. However, what I have read less about is how, in altering its payment terms, Amazon itself was responding to artist feedback. As the company noted: “We’re making this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read.”
In his two blogs about the subject Hugh Howey notes his own influence: “We have different degrees of leverage. I’ve tried to use my leverage to win concessions for all authors. A number of the bestselling authors have done this. We ask for pre-orders for everyone as soon as possible. Better reporting. More categories. All kinds of stuff. I pressure Amazon to extend the 70% down to 99 cents for shorter works, which I think is fair. I give them hell about the exclusivity requirement every chance I get, from the bottom of the ladder to the top.”
There is something intriguing about the growing power of individual artists or collectives—like Howey, Swift claims to be speaking up for those who don’t yet wield the same power as her, “This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success.”
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Similarly, one wonders how indie authors outside of the elite group feel about Amazon’s change in terms. Many were co-opted into Kindle Unlimited without prior request because Amazon felt compelled to move against Scribd and Oyster, and though writers can opt out, the fund from which Amazon generates payments (though it has risen month on month) is still entirely made-up. Now how writers get paid has changed too—and without any sense of their being any negotiation. It is an extreme scenario, but not one we should feel entirely comfortable about.
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A more pertient question book publishers should be asking, is not what could Taylor Swift do for them, but how the music business got into a position where it had to rely on a single artist to run its negotiations for them.
Link to the rest at Futurebook
PG isn’t an expert in the music business, but does know enough to wonder which industry treats its artists worse, music or publishing.
It’s not hard to treat authors better than Big Publishing does, so Amazon can consistently do so without breaking a sweat.
For example, PG doesn’t think the Authors Guild project to improve publishing contracts has attracted enough attention or analysis.
The list of contract provisions AG wants traditional publishing to change is an indictment of the industry’s horrible treatment of its authors. Even prisoners in the Soviet Gulag were released from oppression when they died. Under life-of-copyright contract terms, the maltreatment of authors continues down to their heirs.
As PG has mentioned before, in his experience with American business contracts across a wide variety of industries, no other group of (supposed) competitors offers such one-sided agreements whose terrible terms are so uniformly applied as does New York publishing. One might suspect collusion was occurring.
To make one point of comparison, which major New York publisher has provided any explanation of changed contract provisions impacting how authors are paid as Amazon has with its KDP Select Global Fund announcement?
Amazon treats authors as business partners. No one will contend that the partners have equal power, but with actions such as paying authors on a monthly basis, providing all authors with detailed sales information in close to real time, allowing authors to opt out of some royalty programs and choose which countries in which Amazon can sell their books, Amazon is miles and miles ahead of Big Publishing in the “authors are our partners” race.
If Taylor Swift were a megastar author, she would be condemning Big Publishing for underpaying authors at least as vigorously as she attacked Apple for underpaying musicians.