Passive Guy

Agents going off the rails

10 April 2014

From Janet Reid, Literary Agent:

A while back I posted a question from a writer who seriously wondered if her agent was dead or abducted by aliens (no contact for months on end.)

In my reply I mentioned that kind of thing has been happening more often. That observation sparked some interest and some requests for elaboration.

. . . .

Back in the day, and I mean back before email, the internet and Twitter and, let’s face it, transparency, the career path for becoming an agent was starting as an editor at a big publishing house, and learning how the biz worked. There are those who traveled a different route of course, but they were the exceptions, not the norm.

That has changed almost completely.

Many younger agents are starting as agents. Or assistants who are allowed to sign clients. Or interns who are sure they learned everything they need to know and set up shop as agents when their internship is completed.

. . . .

And they’re often alone and unsupported. By alone, I mean they work as sole proprietors or in remote offices from the main agency. By unsupported I mean they do not have someone sitting five feet away who can help them get out of trouble or stop them from getting in to trouble. Of the five cracker jack young agents I know best, ALL started out sitting close to an agent with more experience, an agent who considered it his/her job to guide the younger agent.

And there’s another component to consider. Recently I tallied the lists of tasks I had for each client in 2003. Then I tallied the tasks I had for clients in 2013.

By my count there is three times the work now for each client/book that there was in 2003.

. . . .

So if you’re an agent who’s been doing this forever, and in the last ten years your job has tripled, and your income hasn’t, and all of a sudden there’s this new transparency and people are talking about you on the Internet like you can’t see it, well, sometimes just not dealing with the problems seems pretty much like the avenue of least resistance.

I don’t say this to excuse the behavior. It’s bad behavior. It’s very unprofessional. I’d like to say I’ve never been guilty of behaving this way, but it would not be true.

But what this is has a name: burnout.

. . . .

If you’re an author you’ll want to avoid signing with an agent who is headed down Burnout Ave. How to tell? You ask her clients. Not “is s/he burning out?” but “how’s the communication?” Agents who are burning out generally aren’t communicating well.

Find out how much support an agent has. If things go south, is there someone there to pick up the pieces? A sole prop who goes off the rails leaves her clients in a bigger mess than someone backed by an agency with people who know where the files are.

Link to the rest at Janet Reid, Literary Agent and thanks to Amy for the tip.

PG says a lot of businesses/professions (including lawyers) have a high incidence of burnout.

It’s always a bad idea to deal with a professional who is burned out.

Most state bar associations have resources plus the means of intervening if a lawyer is burning out. None of the associations has a perfect system to the best of PG’s knowledge, but, at least in California, if the bar receives complaints from clients that a lawyer is not returning calls or delivering quality work, the bar will intervene with varying degrees of assertiveness, depending upon the nature and severity of the problem.

PG understands the medical world has similar tools to help a burned-out doc.

However, literary agents are effectively unregulated, except via litigation. As Janet’s post indicates, anybody can offer his/her services as a literary agent. Just released from drug rehab? You can be an agent! Coming out of prison and your parole officer says you need a job? You can be an agent!

PG does not mean to slander skilled, honest and diligent agents. They certainly exist and provide useful services for their clients.

However, when one agent burns out, screws clients and the news hits the internet, all agents collect a little soot.

Where are literary agent licensing laws? Where is the formal, enforceable code of ethics?

Demonstrating some minimal competence and following strict rules for the segregation of author’s funds from agency funds as a condition of receiving a license would set a licensed agency apart and above others. The threat of losing an agent’s license would certainly provide some deterrence for bad behavior. Arbitration of agent/author disputes would be a valuable service a licensing entity could provide.

PG thinks some licenses (pedicurist or interior designer, for example) are silly, but agents receive money, sometimes a lot of money, that belongs to their clients. If publishers won’t talk to authors, the agent is the only avenue through which information flows between authors and publishers. Sometimes this information is very valuable and professional consequences for authors can be severe if the information doesn’t promptly and accurately arrive for them.

Some agents do quit providing services for their clients while still holding onto their right to have the author’s royalties flow through their bank accounts. Or maybe not flow, but rather sit in the agents’ bank accounts for a month or two or three. Or provide a short-term “loan” to cover the rent or cocaine payments.

The end of the beginning

8 April 2014

From The Bookseller:

After the excesses of the early years, did we all wake up in 2013 with a digital hangover? It can sometimes feel like it. Coming off the back of three years of treble-digit e-book growth, last year’s growth rate, of around 20%, was a detoxifier. In truth though, this party has barely even begun. As Amara’s Law argues, we tend to overestimate the impact of digital changes in the short term, but underestimate them in the long run.

. . . .

The numbers (those available to us) are not in dispute. The Bookseller reported in its issue on 24th January this year that e-book sales grew 18% in 2013, based on data supplied by all of the big publishers. It has since been backed by Nielsen’s Books and the Consumer report, which showed, based on consumers’ responses, that purchases of e-books were up by 20% in 2013. The Bookseller estimated that 74 million e-books were sold in 2013; Nielsen put out a figure of 80 million. The difference was Nielsen’s  larger estimate for sales of self-published e-books; it believes they account for 20% of overall e-book sales.

For those in doubt (and disappointingly some still are) both sets of data contain Amazon figures. But the caveats are important. There are huge chunks of the e-book market that we do not have sight of, and the data we do have is partial and estimated. I think a section of the e-book market, mainly Kindle-based, will be forever unknown.

. . . .

However, I don’t think the overarching message would change. The champagne days of treble-digit digital growth for all are clearly behind us. What we perceived as an explosion of e-reading was actually a market shift: for some sections of the reading community the e-book represented something new and convenient, and they flocked to it in their droves, downloading more than they’d ever had access to before, at low prices, and reading, I suspect, only a proportion of it. That—along with Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games—served to inflate the e-book space at a time when the print market was heading in the opposite direction. It also overemphasised the slowdown.

The next generation of e-book adopters may be slower arriving, and more promiscuous in their choices. Ideally, they will read across different platforms and be attracted to books by levers other than price. But in truth nothing is certain. Except clearly it is wrong to suggest that the e-book is going away, or that there is some kind of titanic struggle between the different formats, or those who work on them. What I see when I go into publishing businesses are editors as delighted by their e-book sales as well as their hardback sales, but relieved that one format did not kill off the other.

. . . .

When I interviewed Penguin Random House chief executive Markus Dohle in Berlin two weeks ago he said he thought the group’s growth rates would average out at around 2%–4% annually, driven by emerging markets and new business models. He expected the mature markets (the UK and the US) to grow by around 1%–2%.

. . . .

The inevitable lull that has followed a quieting of the e-book market is not to be dismissed. As one senior executive put it to me recently, the “bed-wetting” is now a thing of the past. As I wrote in The Bookseller Leader last week, it seems to me that publishing can now look forward from a stable base.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

PG thinks 1-2% projected growth by the largest publisher in the US/UK markets is anything but a good sign for traditional publishing. PG would bet that Amazon’s book sales are growing significantly faster than that.

If Amazon sells more books than anyone else and it’s growing faster, what does 1-2% projected growth say about what’s really happening with physical bookstores?

People who write about the book business seldom recognize the market impact of authors (other than the occasional 50 Shades-style megabook). In PG’s behemothically humble opinion, most business-savvy authors are engaging with large traditional publishers these days only (or at least primarily) because those publishers offer access to physical bookstores and can push a bunch of books into those stores if the publisher decides it’s going to be a big book. As the number of physical bookstores shrinks, that tradpub benefit becomes less valuable.

While a lot of individual authors have reached the tipping point at which they’ve decided they’ll make more money traveling the indie road and either quit or never engage with traditional publishing, PG suspects there’s a tipping point up ahead when self-publishing will become conventional wisdom in the same way that “show, don’t tell” is in the writing world. The default choice for the ambitious author will be self-publishing.

If you’re looking for a parallel, think of the Blackberry. PG got an early Blackberry that just did email when he was doing a lot of business travel and it was wonderful. He remembers keeping track of the location of the Delta flight attendant while holding his Blackberry up against the airplane window during take-off to suck in as many emails as possible before entering the email dead zone.

He was happy when Blackberry offered an email/cell phone combination so he could give up his Nokia phone and just carry one lump in his pocket or (horrors!) on his belt. Blackberry’s physical keyboard was a lovely tool for composing emails. PG doesn’t remember exactly how many Blackberries he had, but there were several.

Then came the smart phone. And the even smarter phone. Email became an app, one of many apps.

For PG, the Blackberry physical keyboard would still be the best for thumb-typing, but he uses Siri for 90% of his email/text compositions. Plus email comprises a much smaller portion of what he uses his phone for than it did during the pre-iPhone era when Blackberry dominated the business market. Today, most business publications limit their Blackberry stories to the “will Blackberry survive or not” genre.

Blackberry didn’t stop doing what it did best. It just couldn’t change fast enough to keep up with competition.

Hence the comparison with traditional publishing.

Self-publishing is a far more threatening competitor to Randy Penguin than HarperCollins is or ever will be again.

Amazon to Central Europe: “No unions, please!”

2 April 2014

From Melville House:

Amazon, the global megacorporation owned bylubricant-obsessedspaceman Jeff Bezos, is currently expanding its operations in Central Europe. Unfortunately (for Amazon, at least), its quest to dominate every aspect of commerce hit a number of snags last year in Germany. In February, it emerged that Amazon had hired a security firm whose staff included neo-Nazis to manage security at its warehouses—hiring neo-Nazis is bad anywhere, but it’s especially bad in Germany. And in May, November, and December German warehouse workers, who belong to the Ver.di Union, went on strike, demanding fair wages. (That said, it wasn’t all bad news for Amazon: they barely paid any tax in Germany. So there.)

Now, with the company set to expand its operations in Central Europe, Amazon is intent on avoiding trouble. And there’s no better way to avoid trouble than by avoiding unions—like so many company’s before them, Amazon is headed east, where workers are cheaper and less likely to unionize.

. . . .

Amazon will, however, face formidable competition in its quest for a union-free workforce in Poland. The Solidarity labor union, which grew to prominence as an anti-Soviet workers’ movement in the 1980s, has stated that it intends to stand strong against the e-tailer. Marek Lewandowski told the Financial Times that “It’s up to the workers to organize themselves, but we’re here to help. Amazon won’t scare us off.” Still, as the Times notes in their report, union membership has increased dramatically in both Poland and the Czech Republic since the fall of communism. Roughly 12 percent of Polish workers belong to unions, compared to 17 percent of Czechs. On average, Polish workers earn one quarter of what their German equivalents make. Cheap wages + low unionization = Amazon’s dream workforce.

Link to the rest at Melville House

PG wonders which union represents the employees of Melville House. He also wonders which unions represent the employees of the bookstores through which it sells most of its books. PG doesn’t remember seeing union buttons in any Barnes & Noble store he’s visited.

As far as wages are concerned, every non-psychotic article PG has read about Amazon’s warehouses has reported it pays its warehouse workers higher salaries than the average salary in locations where the warehouses are located. There never seems to be any shortage of local workers who are anxious to work for Amazon.

And one more thing. Just a few days ago, we had a story that included the following quote: “As a small press, Melville House pays even smaller e-book royalties than the majors: 20 percent.”

Maybe it’s time for Melville House authors to organize so they can earn a living wage. PG suggests that each Melville House author be paid no less than an Amazon warehouse worker.



Mystery Of The “Hybrid”: Just A Phase For Authors?

1 April 2014

From Thought Catalog:

Everything is changing amazingly fast for writers. Procedure; publishing patterns; “best practices” that won’t be best in 10 more minutes; broken rules; and lady-or-tiger options—say the secret word and you either get kissed by an online promotion or eaten alive by an algorithm.

It’s one of the reasons that authors spend so much time reading each other’s blog posts. They’re searching for answers no one has. Never has so much wisdom been offered to so many by so many others who knew so little more than the first many. (And thank God Churchill didn’t live to read that mess.)

It’s almost preposterous how many writers are writing books about how to write a book—the #bookbooks, I call them. Is it a bit cannibalistic, writing these things to sell to your fellow writers? Yes, it is. We had enough #bookbooks ten years ago. They’re all here, thank you. “Why do all the ladies of my parish bake cupcakes once a month and sell them to each other?” asks Rev. March in John Updike’s The Centaur. Maybe because it’s easier to sell to each other than to strangers. And maybe it’s more comfortable to sell books to other writers than to readers?

. . . .

The idea is that as an author, you are neither all-self-publishing nor all-traditionally publishing. You are both. You’re a “hybrid.” Case-by-case basis. If your agent turns up his nose at your latest masterpiece, you just publish it yourself. So there. But if your agent likes it and can sell it to a publisher, then that’s great: all those “author services” (editing, cover and interior design, formatting, and no marketing) are done for you by the publishing house.

Authors have learned to make sure their traditional contracts allow them to moonlight in this way.

. . . .

The hybrid=good formula has looked so stable that it may come as an unsettling surprise to some that North Carolina cozy queen Elizabeth Spann Craig now is questioning how the hybrid birdbath looks in her own backyard.

In Must a Writer Go Hybrid for a Higher Income?, she writes:

Maybe my main point is that you don’t have to remain a hybrid writer. You could start out as a hybrid author, soak up all the knowledge you can, and then self-publish afterward.

Uh-oh. What new heresy is this? Actually, it’s considerably well thought-out stuff and has drawn some 50 comments to Craig’s blog (“Mystery Writing is Murder”), which is well-read but not always so heavily yakked up.

. . . .

Somewhere in an office in Manhattan, coffee just paused on its way across the desk. An “I Heart Books” mug is being set back down.

I feel that the benefits that I’ve received are winding down.  I’ve gotten a great education from my talented editors.

Craig has written a Dear John letter.

And if anything can make the publishing establishment listen up, it might well be this: a highly successful, dependable, cozy-writing champ near the line between North and South Carolina announcing that she’s had just about all she needs, y’all, from the industry! the industry! 

Dean & DeLuca coffee is cooling fast as Craig goes on:

I’ve received exposure in physical bookstores and libraries and an introduction to a dedicated reader base.  I hate to sound like I just want to take my ball and go home, but that’s likely the ultimate direction I’m heading in.

Coffee now? Ice-cold:

Mainly, now…I feel as if my self-publishing production is slowed down because of traditional publishing.  I wince as I say that, but it’s the truth.

Link to the rest at Thought Catalog and thanks to Randall for the tip.

PG says the article points out an uncomfortable myth Big Publishing has sold itself about hybrid authors. They’ve regarded it as the literary equivalent of an open marriage. Sure, an author will go for a weekend fling with self-publishing, but, after a little playtime with Amazon, will return to the welcoming bosom of tradpub.

PG warns that the tradpub contracts can be more of a problem than the article implies if the author isn’t careful, but Elizabeth Craig is far from the only author coming to this conclusion. People who are selling very nicely for tradpub are coming to the conclusion that there are diminishing returns to staying there.

Reputation built? Check. Faithful readers in place? Check. Library patrons can find some of your books? Check. Nothing new that Big Publishing can offer? Check. Want to permanently trade ebook royalties of less than 15% of selling price for royalties of just under 70% of selling price? Check.

First known pattern of authors exploiting big publishers instead of the other way around? Check.

Somebody will think PG messed up his royalty numbers. After all, it says in all Big Publishing contracts that the author will receive a 25% ebook royalty. Knowing PG quit taking math classes after advanced algebra, a numerical error might not be a bad assumption, but he’s not wrong in this case.

When an indie author deals with Amazon, he/she receives 70% of the ebook selling price (less delivery charges). When a tradpub author deals with a publisher, he/she receives 25% of what the publisher receives from Amazon, not 25% of the ebook selling price.

Here are the numbers, assuming the publisher is selling the ebook for a 70% royalty from Amazon (not always a good assumption):

Selling Price$9.99
Royalty %70%
Amount received by Publisher$6.99
Author’s gross royalty %25%
Gross royalty to Author$1.75
Agent’s %15%
Agent’s share$0.26
Author’s royalty received$1.49
Author’s net royalty %14.88%

PG hasn’t included Amazon’s delivery charges, assuming they’re likely to be pretty much the same for tradpub and selfpub.

What Seems To Be the Problem Here?

31 March 2014

From N+1

I’ve worked in book publishing for most of my adult life; currently I run an online bookstore called Emily Books specializing in the kind of women’s writing that’s typically labeled “difficult.” My business partner is my best friend. Most of my other friends and coworkers are also involved, directly or otherwise, in the writing, publication, and sale of books. When we talk about Amazon an uneasy pall falls over the room, as if we’ve invoked a monstrous, evil entity—Pol Pot or Exxon Mobil or King Joffrey Baratheon, the Ill-Born Usurper of Westeros (lifetime Amazon rank of A Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin: 14). Amazon’s cutthroat pricing schemes, commanding control of the book marketplace, and experiments with bundling and the publication of original material directly threaten our livelihoods, such as they are.

. . . .

As an independent bookseller, and as a reader, and as a person, this worries me. On the other hand, I realize that a consumer without a dog—and by “dog” I mean “an unnaturally strong and cherished connection to the written word”—in this particular fight might have no stronger response than a shrug at the prospect of Total Domination. Most of us, understandably, are more concerned with economics on the personal scale of budgets and paychecks and debt and less interested in economics on the corporate scale of interstate commerce or monopolies or taxable presences. Amazon’s violation of the spirit (if not the letter) of American tax and anti-monopoly laws is abstract; one’s rent, phone bill, spending money, student loan payments, a lot less so. And Amazon is very good at addressing economics on a personal scale: their stuff is cheap and there’s a lot of it. One-click purchasing (which Amazon pioneered), low prices, endless inventory, and incredibly fast shipping have made it a company that reported $61 billion in sales last year and a 60 percent increase in stock value over the first half of 2013. The frequently cited fact that Amazon rarely turns a profit in a given quarter is mostly beside the point: if they didn’t spend so much money on building infrastructure for their future new world order, the company would be plenty profitable. And, as The Everything Store makes clear, Amazon doesn’t have to be profitable to become the only significant retailer doing business in many major product categories. Once it’s done that, prices will go up.  Why would they not? Where one falls on this question, I think, depends on whether or not you think the check for the actual cost of merchandise we’ve grown accustomed to purchasing at artificially low prices is ever going to be dropped on the metaphorical table, and who’s going to have to pony up their Visa.

. . . .

There’s a fundamental problem with bookselling as a business: put bluntly, it’s that people aren’t really into buying books. Bezos discovered this via a 1998 survey that found most shoppers didn’t use and probably never would, because—well—Americans buy very few books. This is the part of the story where some booksellers, like me and my partner, might begin wishing we had done something else with our lives, but Bezos was unfazed. Instead he turned his attention to other products easily sold via mail, and shortly thereafter Amazon expanded into music and DVDs.

. . . .

Then, in 2007, Amazon released the Kindle. The new device was made possible by the relatively recent advent of widespread wireless technology; the development of magnetic e-ink, which made the screen readable without a backlight, and the fact that in the years before, Amazon had leveraged its market power to convince publishers to digitize their back catalogs. When the Kindle launched, publishers didn’t see why an ebook should cost any less than a physical book, and set the price at the same as the hardcover—typically, around $26. With the standard 50 percent discount, this meant the publishers would charge sellers $13. Bezos set the sticker price of most ebooks at $9.99, meaning that every time Amazon sold an ebook, he lost $3. For a while, publishers chuckled, but then they grew frightened. What did Bezos have up his sleeve? Amazon could afford to sell ebooks at a loss, but the availability of a cheaper ebook edition meant publishers lost money on their most profitable format (the hardcover) and small booksellers could not compete at all. Amazon no longer adheres to the $9.99 ebook price point as a rule, but the standard had been set, and the company only grew more powerful as the popularity of the ebook format increased. Holiday 2013 sales of the Nook, Barnes & Noble’s answer to the Kindle, fell 60.5 percent compared to 2012 holiday sales. Borders—initially one of the Big Bad, along with Waterstones and Barnes & Noble—went out of business in 2011, and Barnes & Noble is expected to follow any day now.

. . . .

Emily Books, the online feminist bookstore I run with my best friend, was started as an attempt to create a tiny, but serious, competitor to Amazon. To our surprise, the publishers who will talk in private about how much they hate Amazon did not want to do business with us. When I approached the VP of what I’ll generously call the “Digital Development” department of one of these publishers about selling one of her books via Emily Books, she was dismissive. She won’t do business with retailers who can’t offer digital rights protection (DRM), she explained. OK, I said, that software is far too expensive for most independent booksellers, and for Kindle devices, it’s proprietary to Amazon. What sort of non-Amazon branded digital protection would they require? Was there a viable workaround, an alternative? What if we were able to come up with something? As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized how stupid they were. Surely such a thing—an Amazon workaround!—would be incredibly, obviously valuable.  Surely many people far smarter and wealthier than me were working day and night on it. Well, the Digital Developer reiterated, acknowledging my gaffe by speaking as if to a very slow child, they would need the software required for a Kindle. Never mind that these arbitrary criteria exclude basically all retailers who are not Amazon, never mind that DRM does little to prevent a determined book pirate, never mind that a real-life retailer was literally asking for her business, money on the table. It’s rare to witness someone line up such a perfect shot to their own foot, unless you work in publishing, I guess.

. . . .

But it turns out the way to build the world’s most successful bookstore has nothing to do with knowing your customers or recommending the “best” books or even making money, and everything to do with developing software, recruiting investors, and hiring a bunch of people who used to work at Walmart. This is not news I can use, but it explains the odd mixture of relief and nihilism I felt. Jeff Bezos both created and dominated the industry of his choice, online retail. His success has all but ensured the failure of anyone else who wants to sell not just books but consumer goods of any kind, and I wonder how many corporate biographies will be possible after this one.

Link to the rest at N+1 and thanks to Jan for the tip.

Grumble, grumble, whine, whine. Making excuses and predicting doom for all that is good and right about Big Publishing and book selling makes losing to Amazon a foregone conclusion.

It is interesting that Big Pub’s ignorant worship of DRM squeezes out potential competitors to Amazon.

But back to the bigger picture – How many times did Jeff Bezos hear that Wal-Mart would squash Amazon like a bug whenever Bentonville turned its sights on ecommerce? A bazillion at least.

But now, with Amazon growing by leaps and bounds, the tradpub world sees nothing but the end of corporate biographies in the future.

At heart, Amazon is a tech company. If anybody in Big Publishing had the slightest knowledge of the technology world other than the headlines they read in The New York Times, they would understand that Compaq was once where Amazon is in the public imagination. So was IBM in personal computers and Lotus and Microsoft and Hewlett Packard. PG thinks Apple has passed its point of maximum influence and value and will be much less impressive in three years than it is now.

Staying on top of the slippery pole that is the consumer-oriented tech biz is a hard, hard thing to do. So hard, nobody has managed to do it for very long since the invention of the personal computer and the internet.

PG says Amazon will slide down that pole some day. Not today or tomorrow or next year, but some day.

Of course, in PG’s opinion, traditional publishers will disappear before Amazon does and that’s pretty much what all these articles are about. Not that Amazon will destroy the world, but that Amazon will destroy their world.


Entertainment Weekly’s disgraceful decision puts “prestige” over paying writers

28 March 2014

From Salon:

Entertainment Weekly, the venerable consumer-friendly magazine about movies and TV and the like, is under the same crunch as the rest of the media industry; its parent company, Time Inc., has recently gone through a series of layoffs. But the manner in which the magazine is attempting to build out its brand is the absolute worst-case scenario — bad for authors and for readers.

Lucia Moses at Digiday reports that Entertainment Weekly is to launch an online “contributor network” that is to feature readers as writers, particularly on “TV and eventually other areas [...] staff reporters don’t cover deeply.” In other words, anyone can now write for Entertainment Weekly, but they shouldn’t expect a check.

. . . .

In an ideal world, writing for free would never happen — it’s work and should be compensated — but perhaps there is an argument that a community platform could give rise to particularly innovative or exciting takes. So far, the beta page is just recaps of TV shows in the EW house style. There’s something deeply disingenuous about opening up a website as a platform for young or eager writers to ply their trade for free when they’re not expected to do anything new. Why would Entertainment Weekly hire any of the people contributing to the community page when they’ve already shown they’re willing to do the work of a writer for free? Pardon me — not for free, as they’ll have the “prestige” and “access to editors” that Entertainment Weekly promises. Prestige entirely aside, how helpful or receptive will be editors staking their livelihoods on writers not waking up and demanding money for labor? How can any writer producing identical content to their counterpart distinguish herself enough to make exposure meaningful?

Link to the rest at Salon and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

This is the same thing that Forbes blogs does.

PG is not offended so long as contributors understand they’re doing it for free and retain all rights to the content they create. EW gets content for nothing and the work of contributors is shown to a much larger audience than would ever see their blog.

Some traditional magazines are laying off staff because advertisers and paying subscribers are leaving in droves. PG never likes to see anyone get fired, but if the magazine is going to disappear should it continue with its present payroll, those jobs are going to disappear at some point anyway. If the magazine collapses completely, everybody gets fired. If it continues in a different form, at least some people (maybe not the most deserving ones) do get to keep their jobs.

Indie authors are part of the freelance economy, usually operating alone or with periodic assistance from other freelancers like editors, cover artists or book designers, selling on common markets like Amazon. While PG has held some very good jobs, all-in-all, he prefers the freelance economy for himself.

A former compatriot of PG owns a PR agency and she helps clients write items for Forbes blogs as a means of promoting their businesses and personal brands. She writes a very popular Forbes blog to do the same thing for herself. She doesn’t feel exploited in the least.

Why Book Publishers Need to Think Like Amazon

17 March 2014

From Publishing Perspectives:

George Packer’s recent article in The New Yorkerabout the ever-increasing presence of Amazon is simply the latest in a long line of wake-up calls — or calls-to-arms — to the traditional book publishing industry. Amazon’s ability to sell directly to consumers, as well as use consumer insights to predict future purchases, continues to challenge the ways in which publishers think of their business models. In fact, publishers will likely have to change from a business-to-business model to a business-to-consumer model in order to evolve as brands and compete effectively in the marketplace.

Publishers face many challenges when it comes to establishing themselves as viable brands with customers. Traditionally, they have little to no brand recognition with book buyers because it’s been the author’s “brand,” not the publisher’s, that’s typically been marketed to consumers. Furthermore, bookstores have acted as the main point of contact between publishers and readers, and regardless of whether they are bricks-and-mortar or online, very rarely have they focused on the personality of a publisher instead of the books themselves. Until recently, it’s been largely unnecessary, given the traditional sales model. Most readers, then, have only a passing knowledge of what makes a literary imprint like Random House’s Knopf, for example, different from another literary imprint like Simon & Schuster’s Scribner, or even from a more commercial imprint like St. Martin’s Press.

. . . .

Establishing relationships directly with book buyers is one significant opportunity that lies within these current challenges. The book clubs of yore did this to some extent, but the advent of social media — and of the Internet, in general — has opened up robust channels of communication between publisher and book buyer, as it has between author and fan. Some publishers have used social media exceptionally to engage with consumers. Penguin’s Twitter Book Club is a prime example. Penguin invites its Twitter followers to join a discussion of a Penguin title each month via the hashtag #readpenguin. Readers then talk with one another, with Penguin, and often with the author him- or herself. Because Penguin is facilitating the conversation and participating in it, consumers understand that Penguin is enhancing their reading experience by embracing social media, as an informed brand would.

. . . .

What lies at the heart of this approach is not so much something radically new as it is something long-established — the simple joy of talking about a book, or the thrill of seeing one’s work in print, especially in hardcover or paperback. To that end, in decrying print books as relics, many tech gurus miss an essential point: a print book and its attendant prestige still mean something to consumers, and likely will for a while.

Yes, the long-term future of print books — like print magazines and newspapers — doesn’t look so rosy. But electronic books, as has been widely reported, have plateaued at around 30% of sales. This may be a temporary flattening out, but it points to the fact that print books can — and currently do — live alongside ebooks (as opposed to being devoured by them).

. . . .

This is a conversation that publishers need to own. They should talk directly to consumers about the whole host of experiences they offer instead of relying solely on booksellers to do so.

. . . .

How difficult might this be? Not very, actually. Publishers can begin by leveraging their greatest asset — their authors — to shape their brand identities in consumers’ eyes. This gives customers an idea of an imprint’s character while highlighting publishers’ rich editorial heritage and professional expertise in acquiring, editing, and promoting books — something that can hardly be learned overnight. After all, discerning the good from the vast sea of bad is both a skill and a profession, not an algorithm.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Of course, authors don’t have anything better to do than help publishers shape brand identities in consumers’ eyes. For no additional compensation.

The biggest problem PG sees with this vital transformation of publishers is that big publishers are remarkably insular. Everyone in New York likes to think of themselves as a cosmopolitan citizen of the world, but most aren’t. They’re citizens of New York, which is a vastly different place than the rest of America.

Undertaking the process of really engaging with people in Bismark or Tucson or Mobile is not a task for which a committed Manhattanite is well suited, particularly if said Manhattanite is convinced he/she is vastly smarter and cooler and more connected than anyone West of the Hudson is. If anybody needs transforming, it’s those people in Kansas.

And the Internet pretty much destroys geographical meaning. Nobody knows if you’re tweeting from a Starbucks on West 79th or a Denny’s in Scottsbluff. Or cares. Not that building your career on lunch with the Barnes & Noble buyer really prepares you to do this #twitterthing in the first place.

PG thinks if Big Publishing was going to pull off any sort of transformation in time to save itself, it would have begun before now. He further observes not the slightest indication that publishers have either the ability or the intention to think like Amazon. They would rather die first. And will.

On the other hand, a remarkable and increasing number of authors are transforming themselves into indies and doing quite a nice job of engaging with consumers, building their brands and controlling the conversation about books in general and their books in particular.

In fact, these authors are discovering the joy of being their own greatest asset instead of someone else’s.

The Amtrak Writers Program

10 March 2014

Passive Guy has received lots of email about the terms and conditions of the newly-announced Amtrak Residency Program for writers. If you’re not familiar with it, Amtrak is offering free tickets for authors, presumably on train trips that will last for at least several hours, encouraging them to write about their experience.

The email has focused on the following paragraph in Amtrak’s Terms and Conditions:

6.   Grant of RightsIn submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. In addition, Applicant hereby represents that he/she has obtained the necessary rights from any persons identified in the Application (if any persons are minors, then the written consent of and grant from the minor’s parent or legal guardian); and, Applicant grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy the name, image, and/or likeness of Applicant and the names of any such persons identified in the Application for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing. For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.) Upon Sponsor’s request and without compensation, Applicant agrees to sign any additional documentation that Sponsor may require so as to effect, perfect or record the preceding grant of rights and/or to furnish Sponsor with written proof that he/she has secured any and all necessary third party consents relative to the Application.

PG has the following responses:

1. He is exceptionally pleased that authors and others are carefully reading terms and conditions relating to their writing and encourages the continuation of this practice.

2. PG is also pleased that authors and others are raising the alarm about problematic terms and conditions and hopes this practice continues and grows.

3. For attorneys who are writing terms and conditions, PG suggests it’s a good idea to consider public response before pulling out the moldy boilerplate paragraph covering a Grant of Rights. Amtrak should be asking uncomfortable questions of its counsel about this public relations disaster. Because it is counsel’s fault.

4. This language is, in fact, a rights grab. Amtrak officials have issued statements saying this isn’t what they meant, they would not use any materials without consulting the author, etc. As with all “we would never do that” responses to contract concerns, PG’s response is, “Great. Let’s change the contract to reflect what you just said.”

5. While this is a rights grab, it only covers the Application that would-be train-riding authors submit to Amtrak, not the stories and books the authors write while they’re on the train. So it’s a baby rights grab.

6. However, babies grow up, so authors who are selected to receive free train travel will want to carefully review any other terms and conditions or contracts that Amtrak requires them to sign before the conductor says, “All Aboard!”

Performance Copyright Problems

7 March 2014

The 9th Circuit Court opinion in Garcia v. Google begins as follows:

While answering a casting call for a low-budget amateur film doesn’t often lead to stardom, it also rarely turns an aspiring actress into the subject of a fatwa. But that’s exactly what happened to Cindy Lee Garcia when she agreed to act in a film with the working title “Desert Warrior.”

The film’s writer and producer, Mark Basseley Youssef—who also goes by the names Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and Sam Bacile—cast Garcia in a minor role. Garcia was given the four pages of the script in which her character appeared and paid approximately $500 for three and a half days of filming. “Desert Warrior” never materialized. Instead, Garcia’s scene was used in an anti-Islamic film titled “Innocence of Muslims.” Garcia first saw “Innocence of Muslims” after it was uploaded to and she discovered that her brief performance had been partially dubbed over so that she appeared to be asking, “Is your Mohammed a child molester?”

These, of course, are fighting words to many faithful Muslims and, after the film aired on Egyptian television, there were protests that generated worldwide news coverage. An Egyptian cleric issued a fatwa, calling for the killing of everyone involved with the film, and Garcia soon began receiving death threats. She responded by taking a number of security precautions and asking that Google remove the video from YouTube.

Most copyright case opinions don’t begin in such a compelling manner. Passive Guy could provide numerous examples, but you’ll have to trust him on that contention for now.

PG includes the full opinion below, but will summarize some of the major points here. For copyright nuances, read the opinion.

Ms. Garcia’s contention was that her performance in the film was a copyrightable work and that she never granted the producer any rights to her performance, particularly the right to make a derivative work in which she appeared to be speaking different words.

Mr. Nakoula was guilty of a number of errors of judgement with respect to this film, one of which was not following the standard Hollywood practice of having everybody sign a work made for hire agreement.

Under copyright law, a work made for hire means that the creator of a book, song, movie or acting performance has transferred all of his/her/its interest to whatever copyrightable work he/she/it creates under the agreement to the producer. Under a proper work made for hire agreement, Mr. Nakoula would have owned all of Ms. Garcia’s copyright to her performance. Since he owned the copyright, he would be permitted to make derivative works, like putting new words into her character’s mouth.

As an illustration of the layers of copyright involved in this decision, let’s start with a simple example that was mentioned in the case opinion.

1. The artist known as Prince writes a song called Nothing Compares 2 U.

2. The singer known as Sinéad O’Connor performs the song with a proper performance rights license from Prince for the song music and lyrics.

Prince owns the copyright to the music and lyrics of the song. You need a license from him to do anything with the music and lyrics. Sinéad owns a copyright to her performance of the song. You need a license from her to do anything with that performance.

Even though Prince is the author of the song, he can’t do anything with an audio or video recording of Sinéad performing the song without Sinéad’s consent.

For copyright purposes, there are several levels of derivative works in the Garcia case, each of which is copyrightable:

1. The copyright to the screenplay is owned by the screenplay’s author (unless they signed a work made for hire agreement).

2. The film made from the screenplay is a separate derivative work of the screenplay and the film’s creator owns the copyright to the film. The filmmaker needs rights to the screenplay to do anything with the film, but the author of the screenplay does not own the film because the film is a separate creative work.

3. The court held that Ms. Garcia’s acting performance, while derivative of the screenplay and incorporated in the larger film, was a separate work as well and she owned the copyright to her performance (absent a work made for hire agreement). Like the filmmaker, Ms. Garcia was the author of her performance. She would need rights to the film (and, through the film, the screenplay) to do anything with her performance, but she owned the copyright to her performance.

Because she owns a copyright in part of a video YouTube is streaming, she has the right to pursue a DMCA take-down enforcement action against YouTube for her copyrighted performance in the film. If the filmmaker didn’t have rights to her performance, neither does YouTube.

This is a long prologue to a few thoughts that are more directly related to authors and the kinds of contracts they’re asked to sign.

1. As a general proposition, authors should not sign work made for hire agreements. In doing so, they are transferring all their interest in their books written under such agreements, including their copyright, to someone else. Advertising copyrighters, screenwriters hired by a producer, etc., should expect to sign work made for hire agreements, but fiction authors (and, most of the time, non-fiction authors as well) should not.

Instead, the author gives a license under his/her copyright for others to do things with the author’s book – put it up for sale online in ebook form, publish it, translate it, turn it into a movie, etc.

2. Generally speaking, PG doesn’t like publishing contracts by which an author gives up all rights to his/her books to a publisher. Draw the line at licensing the publisher to publish ebooks, printed books and, perhaps, audiobooks.

Unless the publisher owns a movie studio, the author should keep film, TV, etc., rights. The only way the publisher will monetize those rights is to license a producer or studio to use them. The author can do exactly the same thing her/himself with no need to give a big chunk of film revenues to a publisher.

3. PG has been seeing some publishing contracts that include a grant of rights to publicly perform the author’s work in addition to the right to print, publish and sell hardcovers, paperbacks and ebooks.

The idea behind the publicly perform language is that licensing and distributing ebook files for people to read on digital devices is pretty much the same thing as licensing and distributing video files for people to watch on digital devices.

Motion picture studios earn most of their money by licensing others to publicly perform their movies, whether the license is to a movie theater for paying customers to watch sitting in a big dark place or to Netflix for subscribers to watch in a small dark place.

PG’s problem with the publicly perform language is that it can cause big problems for authors who retain movie, TV, etc., rights. The author can license the studio to create a screenplay and movie from his/her book, but, with the broad language in the publishing agreement, the author can’t license the studio to publicly perform the movie because the publisher holds that right.

Producers and studios aren’t interested in only giving private performances of their films to friends and family at home.

Such public performance language can constitute a back-door rights-grab.

Here’s the full opinion:

Declarations and forecasts of Great Change in the book business need specificity to be useful and often do not provide it

5 March 2014

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

The extended discussion in the comment string of the prior post had to do with to what extent publishers serve authors, and to what extent authors are better off eschewing publishers and working on their own. Unless and until publishers turn digital marketing at scale into a clearly compelling proposition, their power to serve authors effectively diminishes with each closing bookstore. The less bookstore- (or brick-and-mortar retailer-) dependent any book is, the less additional benefit in sales and exposure can be delivered by a publisher (although a cash advance and somebody to handle all the business aspects of putting a book out will still be both helpful and persuasive to many authors). Bookstore shelf space, and printed books, seem to be suffering slower erosion over the past year or two than they did in the several years before that. Michael Cader has made a convincing case that we actually know that for a fact. But, even if we accept the fact, whatever erosion continues will affect different books and authors to different degrees.

. . . .

So generalizations about the book business, whether they come from a self-published author or an industry expert like O’Leary, really require us to do a little parsing to make them useful. We’d be steering toward a more constructive conversation if we posed three questions every time somebody posits a Great Change we will see in the book business.

1. Which books, exactly, should we expect to be affected by this particular Great Change? This is necessary to specify now that most people would agree that “books” has become a pretty worthless generalization.

2. How soon can we expect a meaningful change in the perceived utility, and therefore the demand, for the affected books? That is, are we talking about a change that is already happening and evident and having a commercial impact (travel books are suffering and have been for years) or one we expect to see in the future (readers abandoning longer form books for shorter content choices) for which we might have only the scantiest evidence is affecting commercial reality today?

3. How likely is it that whatever the Great Change is going to be that publishers are well-positioned to affect or control or accommodate it? Brian suggested, and I wholeheartedly agree, the answer is “often not”. That being the case, the prediction of the Great Change should not necessarily be accompanied by the prescription that the publisher should change behavior to address it, although it seems to me they almost always are.

. . . .

Could a publisher of travel books have created Trip Advisor? Does the publisher-created Cookstr do the job of digital assistance for a cook better than or or It doesn’t take a lot of deep thinking to see that a publisher’s skill sets are not the best match for building an interactive internet business where content is a component of the strategy but everything else about it is different from publishing books.

Over time, I expect the book business is going to get smaller, whether the number of books consumed goes down or not. Among the reasons for that is that, over time, the intrusion of self-publishing entities will be even more disruptive than self-publishing authors have been.

. . . .

Whether “book publishing” or “book retailing” shrinks, disappears, or changes form depends on how widespread across the various silos of interest and utility we call “books” today are the many disruptions that will affect those verticals in different ways and at different speeds. And generalizing about what these changes mean, let alone delivering advice that isn’t informed and bounded by an understanding of how any particular book or author or publishing program fits into the time and scale of any particular change, is as likely to be wrong and harmful as it is to be correct and illuminating.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files

While PG sometimes disagrees with Mike, he usually thinks what Mike says makes sense when viewed from the perspective of an established publisher.

This post is pretty loosey-goosey, however.

What is happening to the publishing business begins with technology disruption – ecommerce and ebooks – and is manifesting itself in a massive restructuring of the publishing business that involves the disintermediation of traditional publishers, distributors and booksellers from readers.

Complaining that the precise boundaries and directions of this tumultuous change are not being forecasted with useful precision sounds a little like a surfer complaining that nobody can specifically describe what the next wave will look like.

One of the reasons disruptive change is interesting is that it’s impossible to forecast with specificity.

If Apple hadn’t rehired Steve Jobs in 1997, the music business would look much different than it does today.

Yes, digital music would exist and portable digital music players would be sold in large numbers, but the contours of the digital music business would not be the same as they are with iTunes, iPods, iPhones and iPads. A Microsoft-driven digital music business would look much different than an Apple-driven digital music business or a record-label driven digital music business.

Likewise, the ebook world would look much different if Jeff Bezos still worked for a hedge fund and Sony had led the market into ebooks.

One thing that is clear is that some individuals and some businesses respond better to disruptive technologies than others do.

So far, in PG’s persistently modest opinion, Big Publishing has been remarkably inept in its responses to ebooks and ecommerce. It’s not a business that is tech-savvy or tech-friendly, for one thing. It’s not a business that really wants to change, for another.

The fact that major publishers are owned by large media conglomerates (another group without a lot of tech chops) is a huge disadvantage in a dynamic and rapidly-changing technology and business environment. No big media conglomerate will allow a large subsidiary to lose money or fail to deliver steady profits like the stock market permits Amazon to do.

Mike and Big Publishing want predictability in a business which has become and will remain generally unpredictable for a while. Too bad they can’t choose a different business.

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