From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
I know some of you are going to ask me what I think of the latest Authors United letter, the one they’ve just submitted to the United States Department of Justice. For those of you who don’t know,Authors United—a group of New York Times bestsellers—have chosen to speak for all of us…in demanding that the DOJ stop Amazon’s monopolistic practices, because Amazon is ruining the book business.
There’s so many things wrong with the Authors United letter that it makes my brain hurt. Writer Joe Konrath has fisked the letter on his blog, putting a lot of time and effort into debunking almost everything in the letter. Writer Joe Konrath. Bestselling writer Joe Konrath—in case you missed the point.
I’m not going to replicate Joe’s work. He’s fighting The Stupid, so the rest of us don’t have to.
I’m also not going to defend Authors United. I really wish those folks, some of whom were writers I respected (note the tense), would learn the business of publishing, rather than listen to their agents and publishers, who have a different set of concerns than the writers themselves.
. . . .
Here’s what I wish: I wish that writers had business sense. I wish that they would then use their collective multimillion dollar clout to fight the real war, the one that the music industry is slowly turning its attention to.
I’m pretty sure that no writer besides me noticed this headline on National Public Radio’s website on Tuesday: Is Transparency The Music Industry’s Next Battle?
My answer to that question would be a resounding yes. And after that, perhaps someone can tackle transparency in the traditional publishing industry.
Transparency. What does that mean? It is actually a financial term, with a specific meaning. Financial transparency means that a company must make information as clear and accessible as possible for its investors and business partners. There are a million explanations of financial transparency on the web, but my favorite comes from the Investopedia, which has this sentence in the middle of its four-paragraph explanation of the term:
Transparency helps to prevent the corruption that inevitably occurs when a select few have access to important information, allowing them to use it for personal gain.
So, when artists in the music industry are asking for transparency, they want to be able to track the royalties and other income that artists are due, in an easy and explainable way.
. . . .
Think of this complexity, when you contemplate the revenue streams on your one novel. You wrote the novel, and yeah, you might have put it up on various ecommerce sites yourself, so you have a handful of revenue streams that you can keep track of.
Some writers just publish to Amazon, and have a single revenue stream. When that revenue stream gets disrupted, the writers complain loudly.
. . . .
If you move to other places besides Amazon to sell your single title, then you have multiple revenue streams on that title. Those of us who have freelanced forever learned the first rule of freelancing is to have more than one revenue stream, because the single stream can close literally overnight.
The complexity for writers grows with the number of titles that you publish. Each title, published on multiple sites and in multiple formats, has multiple revenue streams. Not just streams for subscription services like Oyster, but through the digital sites like Amazon and iBooks, and through print, and audio, and podcasting, and a dozen other licenses.
And that’s just the indie work. Hybrid writers like me have titles in channels we can’t monitor easily. Any book still licensed to a traditional publisher has multiple revenue streams, some of which I control and some of which the traditional publisher controls.
That traditional publisher reports on those revenue streams twice a year, a throwback to the origins of the publishing industry, when all of this stuff was done by hand.
. . . .
Figuring out what’s going on with traditionally published work is truly a nightmare, because traditional publishing is not transparent, in any sense of the word.
Sure, writers get paperwork from our traditional publishers. At the beginning of July, Dean and I each got over 50 sheets of paper royalty statements for some of the tie-in novels that we wrote in the 1990s. We could sign up for the online version of those royalty statements, but we haven’t done it yet. I think we’re being passive-aggressive: we’d rather have the publisher spend the money to print out the things than do it on our own.
Most traditionally published writers also have agents, and have a traditional relationship with those agents. That means the money from all of the various revenue streams funnel to a single point—the agent—who removes his 15% before sending the rest of the money to the writer.
You’d think that financial relationship would be transparent, but it is not. In fact, in all the years I had agents, not a single agent ever sent an overall yearend statement, delineating all of the financial transactions that we had throughout that year. Hell, I just got a financial transaction statement from my veterinarian because we spent quite a bit of money there these past two months. And it was amonthly statement of account.
No agent has ever done that for me, and I’ve had several agents from some of the biggest agencies in the business. Think on that, and look at that Investopedia quote again. Then add 2+2, and see what you come up with.
. . . .
The Author’s Guild had one moment of clarity in May, when it announced the Fair Contract Initiative, and I had hoped the Guild was moving to sensible fights. Sigh.
Of course, even the Fair Contract Initiative is behind the times. It’s something that an organization like the Author’s Guild should have fought for fifty years ago. But the Author’s Guild, unlike many music organizations, is toothless. The Guild has no clout at all (even though it thinks it does), and others in the industry can easily ignore it.
As the Berklee study points out, the artists who handle their own finances and don’t go through what the study calls “intermediaries” like record labels have a better understanding of what the income is from music.
Those of you who are indie published can keep track of what you earn with greater ease than traditionally published writers can. The problem isn’t with the transparency of Amazon or Barnes & Noble or other retailers. As I’ve said before, these large organizations with public stock are governed by very strict laws, some of which address the need for transparency for investors.
The problem for indie writers comes in the amount of data, as I mentioned above, and trying to keep track of all of it.
The problem for traditionally published writers is the same as the problem for musicians who have chosen to go through labels to market their work. As the study says repeatedly:
Data provided to artists and writers with these royalty payments is often opaque. As a result, they often don’t understand the payments and accountings that they receive. One reason for the opacity may be that it benefits intermediaries. —Fair Music: Transparency and Payment Flows in the Music Industry, P. 3
. . . .
Traditional publishers have already gotten into trouble with the Department of Justice for bad business practices. It’s not hard for anyone who understands business to believe that organizations which have already proven that they’ll break the law to have a business advantage will break the law in other places as well. Companies that are willing to cut corners will look at the most vulnerable parties first, and in publishing, those parties are naïve writers, who expect honesty and get none.
Neither the music industry nor the publishing industry has an internal reason to change its reporting structures. Those structures also benefit agents, no matter how much they complain to the press. Because a lot of agents skim. Some do it on the float, by holding money in interest-bearing accounts for as long as a month—which is, by the way, perfectly legal if the writer has agreed to it in a contract. Other agencies actually skim by “losing” payments or by taking a larger percentage than they deserve.
Even if individual agents believe that the system must change, the company they work for, the agency, will not take on this fight. It’s not in an agency’s best interest either.
Writers have to do it. And the big names should stop wasting their time and what little clout they have with things that have nothing to do with the sharp decline in traditionally published writer revenue, and go after the thing that actually has impacted writer revenue: the way that this new digital income gets reported.
Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and thanks to Dave for the tip.
Here’s a link to Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s books