PG’s Thoughts

To Compete Better, States Are Trying to Curb Noncompete Pacts

30 June 2016

From MSN Money:

In today’s on-your-own economy, workers are urged to be entrepreneurial job hoppers, constantly adapting and searching for the next opportunity.

But an estimated 30 million Americans — nearly one fifth of the nation’s work force — are hobbled by so-called noncompete agreements, fine print in their employment contracts that keeps them from working for corporate rivals in their next job.

Now a number of states are looking to untangle workers from these agreements. The Massachusetts House of Representatives is scheduled to vote this week on a noncompete reform bill. The state is also the location of a union organizing campaign on the noncompete practices of the EMC Corporation, a large technology company based in Hopkinton, Mass., that is known for its aggressive application of these employment contracts.

Other states are also taking steps as noncompete agreements have spread to summer interns and sandwich shop employees. Hawaii banned noncompete agreements for technology jobs last year, while New Mexico passed a law prohibiting noncompetes for health care workers. And Oregon and Utah have limited the duration of noncompete arrangements.

. . . .

The issue hits Massachusetts with particular force because of its technology heritage and failure to keep up with Silicon Valley. In the early 1980s, the Route 128 corridor outside Boston, birthplace of the minicomputer industry and long-gone tech giants like the Digital Equipment Corporation, was seen as the Silicon Valley of the East.

Noncompete pacts were only one ingredient in the recipe that worked against Massachusetts and to the advantage of Silicon Valley, where employees can depart and start their own companies mostly without fear of a lawsuit. But they mattered. In California, companies are generally prohibited from enforcing noncompete agreements because of a worker-friendly statute from the 19th century.

“It’s hurt our economy in the past, and it’s a statement of values about entrepreneurship and mobility that Massachusetts has noncompetes and California does not,” said Stephen Kraus, a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners and president of the New England Venture Capital Association.

. . . .

Technical workers in Massachusetts would be paid about 7 percent more if the state’s noncompete practices mirrored California’s, said Evan Starr, an economist at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Job mobility is reduced, according to other research, and workers are more likely to detour from their original career paths. Sometimes companies sue departing employees, but those cases are the exception.

“It’s not about the lawsuit, but about the far larger chilling effect,” said Matthew Marx, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management.

In 2008, Brian Connolly, an engineer with years of experience writing software for medical devices, joined a start-up developing diagnostic technology to identify biohazards, First Light Biosciences. After the financial crisis hit, the start-up laid off 12 of its 14 employees, including Mr. Connolly.

Shortly after meeting with a new company, Mr. Connolly got a call from his previous employer, telling him the noncompete prohibited him from joining any company in diagnostic devices, even if the application and the technology were different.

“I understood noncompetes were common practice, but I didn’t think they would enforce it, and that broadly, after a layoff,” he said.

Link to the rest at MSN Money and thanks to Kat for the tip.

PG has discussed the problems that non-compete clauses in publishing agreements present for authors on several previous occasions.

Assuming that the publisher would never enforce a non-compete clause against an author (even when the editor representing the publisher says this is the case) is a bad idea. Typical publishing contracts are assignable and, even if the statement is true with respect to the publisher’s current owners, it may not be with the publisher’s future owners.

With the disruptive changes sweeping through publishing, PG says you can expect more and more traditional publishers to merge, file for bankruptcy or hold fire sales of their assets. Those assets will include all the publishing contracts authors have signed with those publishers. The publisher who holds rights to your books in 2040 will almost certainly be substantially different than the publisher you sign with in 2016.

During the life of a “full term of the copyright” publishing contract, it is certain that the management of publishers will change and very likely that the ownership of publishers will change. It’s a bad idea for an author to accept any contract provisions that aren’t exactly right for the author’s long-term career prospects.

One of the many advantages of self-publishing is that, following Amazon’s lead (and pursuant to standard practices for tech companies using click-to-accept online contracts), self-published authors can expect their contracts will permit them to terminate the agreement with their distributor/etailer at any time.

However, don’t assume this is the case. You need to read those click-to-accept contracts, AKA
Terms and Conditions, when you decide to work with a distributor/etailer to license your ebooks or sell your physical books.

PG is sorry this is the case. He knows you would rather swallow worms than read that turgid lawyerese. He knows that outlandish terms in such contracts might be overturned by a judge if challenged, but his advice stands.

PG will also reveal that more than one tech company has failed to read or understand the Terms and Conditions contract it received from its attorney and just posted the document on its website. If you see something you don’t like in the contract, send an email to the company to tell them it’s a deal-breaker. You may be surprised learn that management of the company agrees with you.

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It’s Frustratingly Rare to Find a Novel About Women That’s Not About Love

22 June 2016

From The Atlantic:

I came of age without a literary soulmate. Growing up, I read every book recommended to me. Nick Carraway’s lucid account of the 1920’s seduced me. Huck Finn’s journey up the river showed me the close link between maturity and youth, and Ray Bradbury taught me to be wary of big government as well as the burning temperature of paper. While the male characters of literature built countries, waged wars, and traveled while smoking plenty of illicit substances, the women were utterly boring.The assigned, award-winning, cannon-qualified books about women were about women I didn’t want to be. Jane Eyre was too blinded by her love for Mr. Rochester, as were all of the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice. Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter was too maternal, and no one wants to grow up to be Anna Karenina. These women wanted to get married and have kids. They wanted to whine for 300 pages about a man who didn’t want to be with them. They wanted, it seemed, to be supporting actresses in their own stories. Their stories were equally about the men who shaped them as what they themselves wanted.

These female characters had love stories of heartbreak, but no stories of solitary self-discovery. Like many young adults, I didn’t necessarily want stable. I wanted to drive On The Road and stop off in small towns and drink more than was probably appropriate. I wanted to question who I was and be my own Catcher in the Rye. There are no Jack Kerouacs or Holden Caulfields for girls. Literary girls don’t take road-trips to find themselves; they take trips to find men.”Great” books, as defined by the Western canon, didn’t contain female protagonists I could admire. In fact, they barely contained female protagonists at all. Of the 100 Best Novels compiled by Modern Library, only nine have women in the leading role, and in only one of those books–The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark–do the leading women strive to do more than find a husband or raise their children. Statistically, one percent of the Best Novels are about women doing something other than loving.To be clear, I love a beautifully told love story. I cry during The Notebook and love Mr. Darcy. I’d just as soon advocate for the banning of metaphors as I would for the banning of stories about love (which is to say never). Love stories are needed because they mirror real life. Men and women alike search for and find partners–be they for a moment or a lifetime. Love stories are huge plot lines in real life, but they aren’t everything.

These days, most women develop personal lives before love lives. They struggle, make decisions, and grow up long before they worry about finding a life partner. Women are getting married later with the average marrying age at 27 according to the most recent Pew Report. That’s four years older than in 1990. Additionally, women’s roles in the workforce have changed radically in the last 50 years. Though incomes between men and women still remain unequal, more women are joining and staying in the workforce, even after they have kids. Their literary counterparts, however, don’t reflect that.

. . . .

There are not many books that star a woman without a man to hold her hand and guide her, or a mess of domestic tasks for her to attend to as her first priority. In the 33 years since Housekeeping’s publication, few–if any–books have mirrored Robinson’s example. Female protagonists like Orleanna Price of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible or Margaret Atwood’s Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, participate in political agendas, fight in wars, and generally have goals other than their love lives. Likewise, some popular fiction has begun to feature leading women with larger career goals and less focus on love. Skeeter of The Help by Kathryn Stockett chooses her career over love as do Edna Pontellier of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and even Andrea Sachs of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada. These women and their goals are the main thrust of these novels, but they all include a love subplot.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG came of age in a different century, but he doesn’t remember caring about the gender assigned to any fictional character in any of his early reading. Scout would have been equally cool and interesting as a boy. Gatsby was as driven and destroyed by passion as Anna K.

PG also disagrees that only a woman author can create an accurate female character. He remembers one of his professors in college (a lovely old woman) saying that Theodore Roethke’s Mediations of an Old Woman was uncannily accurate at capturing the hidden thoughts and feelings of an old woman.

The Western literary canon preceding the twenty-first century is what it is. Absent the unlikely discovery of a new literary genius in a pile of dusty manuscripts, we’re not going to find a striking 18th century female protagonist choosing career over family.

The authors of the 18th century wrote in the context of that age. Elizabeth Bennet would have been a fascinating character in any age, but in the early 19th century, her material self-interest was tied to marrying the right man. If she were going to have any significant personal independence of the kind 21st century women may seek in their careers, Elizabeth’s adult life had to begin by marrying money. Absent such a marriage, her world would become immensely more constrained. Jane Austen certainly understood that, as did her contemporary readers, male or female.

In 21st century America, if you don’t finish high school and go to college, your prospects in life are much narrower than for those who do graduate from college. Some future observer may find this arbitrary condition extraordinarily boring and limiting for one or more identity groups, but that’s the context for our world. Authors who write books set in today’s world will either explicitly or implicitly recognize the class distinctions between a high school dropout and a college graduate (or a Harvard graduate vs. a degree from The Tulsa Welding Institute).

Elizabeth Bennet’s indefatigable determination to not compromise love for money is a terrible career move. It’s like becoming a welder instead of an investment banker. She’ll be giving up income, promotions, influence, a large apartment in a fashionable neighborhood, travel, independence, social status, etc., all for the simple pleasures of living in a shower of sparks joining pieces of metal together day after day.

The true distinction between contemporary heroines with ambitious career goals and important political agendas and Elizabeth Bennet is that Lizzy is interested in love.

Fiction written in the 18th century about subjects other than fundamental and timeless human emotions has disappeared. On the other hand, PBS could not survive without Jane Austen and the Brontës.

There is a reason that romance outsells every other genre, including women’s fiction. It’s the same reason that people read and reread Jane.

“We are all fools in love.”

‘Starting To Hit the Wall’: A Conference Focuses on Publishing Rights

14 June 2016

From Publishing Perspectives:

The rising importance of a mindful, purposeful, aggressive approach to rights management in publishing was phrased many ways during the course of Monday’s conference, Rights and Content in the Digital Age, organized by Publishing Perspectivesin the Grand Hall at New York University’s Kimmel Center.

One of the most intriguing images for the potential value of what book publishing has to offer came from digital content strategist Matt Dellinger, who has done a lot of work in archival content with The New Yorker, Esquire, and other magazines:

“The future of content is more and more about the history of content,” Dellinger said. “It’s a matter of taking the deeper end of the culture pool and circulating it in the kiddie pool of snack-food content.”

From Dellinger and other speakers—and as much in regard to frontlist as backlist—the message was clear: More orchestrated, coordinated, and supported approaches to the management of rights is fast becoming a major key for publishers at a time when sales are challenged in saturated markets: a failure to exploit rights to the fullest, most efficient degree possible is something publishers can’t afford.

Ingenta Chief Revenue Officer Randy Petway’s presentation pointed to how minimal investment has traditionally been made by publishers in the infrastructure of rights departments—something later echoed in comments by longtime rights specialist Kris Kliemann, formerly of Wiley.

. . . .

The day opened with a keynote address from author Roxana Robinson, President since 2014 of the Authors Guild, who warned of the mounting difficulties authors are facing in finding compensation of their work in digitally complicated markets.

“Suppose you want to buy a copy of my newest novel, Sparta,” Robinson said, “which was published in 2013. If you go to Amazon, you will find that they offer a new paperback for $12.98. And also another new paperback for $4.33. And a used paperback for one penny.

“Now, why would you choose to buy the more expensive copy, the $12.99 paperback instead of the $4.33 paperback? They’re both new. You’ll buy the cheaper one. But where does that $4.33 paperback come from? It’s probably a copy the publisher sold off to make room in a warehouse somewhere. It’s very common. Publishers have high hopes for every book they make, they make more copies than can sell…After a certain period of time, they realize they need that space in the warehouse, so they sell off copies cheap to a jobber, a middleman. They sell them at a very deep discount.

“Many contracts have clauses that will allow the publisher, under these circumstances of deep discount, to pay no royalties. The publisher gets paid by the middleman. And the middleman gets paid. Only the author will get nothing at all for the sale of this book which she just wrote…The publishers know this. But they do it [sell at discount to middleman vendors] because they want some money now.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives and thanks to Dave for the tip.

Permit PG to translate: Publishers are facing more and more difficulties in attracting and keeping top authors because more and more authors are learning they can make more money self-publishing. Such difficulties are, of course, adversely impacting revenues and profits.

So publishers are turning to books by authors who have already signed publishing contracts that grant the sun, moon and stars to publishers. The expanded rights management activities are aimed at maximizing revenues from those authors’ books.

As the comments from Ms. Robinson reflect, more revenues to the publisher doesn’t always mean more royalties for the author. Deep discount clauses are buried in the back of most publishing contracts and, in all such contracts PG has reviewed, he’s never seen any evidence that changes to those clauses were negotiated by anyone representing the author.

(For a number of years, it was not unusual for changes to the boilerplate contracts of large and not so large publishers to be highlighted in some way (bold type, underlines, indents, etc.) in the version of the contract the author signed. This practice continued for long after word processing software came into common use. Where such practices were followed, it is easy for PG to see what modifications to standard agreements were made to the author’s benefit or detriment and what unfair contract language was left unchanged.)

Under complex contracts granting a wide range of rights to a publisher, it is sometimes possible for the publisher to license or sell a book in a variety of different ways to affect how much money the publisher keeps. Harlequin’s former practice of licensing every book to a related HQ company instead of directly publishing it, thereby substantially reducing HQ’s royalty payments to authors, is one example of exploiting complex contract provisions in ways authors may not expect.

The standard contracts of other large and small publishers would permit them to do the same thing HQ did to increase profits and reduce royalty payments. It’s something PG has seen and corrected more times than he can remember.

When lowering the price of a book to increase sales, a publisher that is paying attention to the deep discount clause can make more money by pricing the book at a penny less and triggering deep discount royalties (or non-royalties) than it will make by pricing the book at a penny more and paying standard royalties.

PG suggests that aggressive rights management activities are more likely to materially increase the publisher’s income than the author’s income.

Author Sues Universal Over Musical Theater Adaptation of ‘October Sky’

7 June 2016

From Yahoo Movies:

The author of the New York Times best-seller Rocket Boys is suing Universal Pictures for overstepping the life rights he granted in the 1990s and shutting down a musical adaptation of his book in favor of launching its own, according to a complaint filed Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Homer Hickam Jr. says he agreed to give Universal the rights to one book to adapt into one film, October Sky.

Now he is suing Universal, and its president James Horowitz and vp of live theatricals Christopher Herzberger, for a host of claims including breach of contract, fraud, misappropriation and unfair competition. Hickam is seeking at least $20 million in damages, an injunction to shut down the October Sky musical and a declaration from the court that Universal does not have any rights to his life story other than the right to make the original 1999 film.

Rocket Boys is the story of Hickam’s life, centering on the family conflict surrounding his decision to build rockets instead of entering the coal mining business.The author claims he sold that story to Universal in 1996, and his now-deceased literary agent Mickey Freiberg assured Hickam that his sequels were protected and reserved, that the agreement was for one film only and that Universal would have to provide significant payment if it wanted to remake the movie or create a new project.

A decade later, Hickam developed and produced Rocket Boys into a live stage musical with the approval of Universal, according to the lawsuit. In 2015, Universal decided to create an October Sky musical, purportedly based on the film and Hickam’s memoir, and has shut down the author’s stage show.

“Universal has demanded that Hickam cease and desist in developing, producing and performing the Rocket Boys musical and accept a complete gag order that would punish him if he ever said a word about Universal’s wrongful and improper conduct,” states the complaint. “Universal has taken the completely fallacious position that Hickam has optioned all rights to Universal to make any and all motion pictures or live stage productions arising from any and all stories he may write about his life.”

Link to the rest at Yahoo Movies and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

PG will observe that deceased agents are not very useful for determining the meaning of ambiguous contract clauses.

If an author contractually grants rights to his/her book for the full length of the copyright (the remainder of the author’s life plus 70 years in the US and similar durations in other western countries), everybody involved in creating the contract will be dead before the contract ends. This is one of the many reasons for getting the language of the contract exactly right.

Of course, the consequences of poorly-drafted contract language would have fewer potential adverse consequences for the author if the contract’s duration was a more reasonable period of time. A misunderstanding that impacts an author for three years or five years or seven years is less serious than one the author will never outlive.

PG will also observe that the contracts of KDP and other ebook sales channels of which PG is aware may be terminated by either party at any time. This is not to say that authors should not take their KDP contracts seriously and understand the obligations contained therein, but an author who wants to take their book in a different direction can easily do so.

Books’ Prices and Writing’s Value: Careful What We Asked For?

23 May 2016

From Writer Unboxed:

Blurring ‘Our Dignity, Our Value’

“The biggest issue is one that will be difficult for us to recover from…the degradation of our worth as creatives.”

That line is from a piece here at Writer Unboxed a year ago, in May 2015. Our colleague Heather Webb, in As Writers, What Are We Worth?, was anticipating a groan heard ’round the world.

Last month, when I led a round-table discussion at Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum, our topic was “Re-Thinking Ebook Sales and Understanding the Consumers.” But what drew the biggest response was book pricing.

“The consumer,” one of our publishers said, “is in perpetual confusion. No way to understand what a single book costs or how to value our authors’ work.” And at the influential publishing house Bastei Lübbe AG, executive board member Klaus Kluge is calling book prices “staggeringly low” in an interview with Sabine Schwiering Tert at

In the UK in January, Penguin Random House CEO Tom Weldon told my Bookseller colleague Benedicte Page: “”One of the biggest challenges in 2016 will be e-book pricing: how do we maintain the value perception of our quality content and maximize revenues across all formats for both authors and publishers?”

. . . .

What have we done to the idea of writing’s value? How fuzzy is this math going to get?

That’s my provocation for you today. How are today’s pricing problems affecting what Webb characterized here last year as “our dignity, our value, and the viability of this industry”?

Books were always commodities of a kind, and buying second-hand romances by the grocery-bagful didn’t start yesterday.

. . . .

With both the trade and the self-publishing sectors in rampant over-production as they are today, you’re facing a sheer rock face of competition for every glance your book might get, let alone a read, let alone a sale. Your price is in free-fall.

And we can look to our cohorts in Hollywood for a little guidance here, too. You may not remember what the advent of Blockbuster video and then Netflix did to film. But those of us who watched those developments roll in know. Suddenly there were films everywhere, peopled with actors who are not quite the stars they look like speaking dialog that’s as wooden as they are, in strangely unsatisfying knockoffs of other films.

We can’t entirely blame independent authors for this gauzy focus on pricing in books. As the indie insurgence began to impact the trade a few years ago, authors who had never been able to get past the agents and editors, the dreaded gatekeepers, found that they could self-publish in our digital age. But self-selling was a different thing.

When you have no marketing department behind you, when you’re not even listed in a publisher’s catalog or recommended to a Barnes & Noble buyer—and no one’s ever heard of you in the world of books—the one way you might turn the head of a potential buyer cruising Amazon is offer a low price. Or no price.

. . . .

If the trade was aghast at Amazon’s institution of $9.99 as a viable price for the ebook version of a hardcover hit, it’s tempting to mutter “all is forgiven” now. I know many authors who’d love to get $9.99 for their ebooks. Free downloads by the hundreds might feel exhilarating, but your take-home pay? And while it’s popular to hunker down in the bloggoria and shoot the breeze about the “sweet spot” between $2.99 and $4.99, what frequently is not mentioned is frequency: how many of those things do you have to sell at $3.99—even if you’re getting 70 percent—to put together an income?

. . . .

And nobody forced the industry to follow the self-publishing sector in driving the car right on over the cliff. For a time, a UK publisher staged a 20-pence promotion on some of the hottest titles of the year. Now, the bigs are in “new-agency” pricing contracts with Amazon that somehow have them charging high “this price set by the publisher” prices for ebooks at the very moment that the industry needs to energize its digital investments, not price them out of reach.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed and thanks to Kristian for the tip.

PG says successful indie authors are very savvy about pricing their books at a level that maximizes author income. And more than a few earn their living from their writing. And nearly all authors who were traditionally published earn more as indies.

Yes, there are exceptions, but PG hears and reads success stories often enough to feel confident these are reasonably reliable generalizations for mid 2016. Simply put, in 2016, an author is much more likely to be able to support themselves as an indie than as a traditionally-published author.

The “pricing problem” that bothers Big Publishing is centered around the unfortunate reality that ebook prices which will maintain an indie author in fine fashion don’t generate nearly enough money to support a large publisher, regardless of how little it pays its authors.

One of the pivotal stages in a disruptive innovation comes when low-priced producers learn how to satisfy an economically significant portion of the overall market and use that position and their low prices to keep garnering more and more customers. These customers are satisfied with the quality of the product the low-priced producers offer and the low-priced producers have reached a point where they sell enough products and earn enough money to continue their business without interruption and without infusions of new capital. In short, the low-priced producers – indie authors – aren’t going away.

Speaking generally, more and more purchasers of ebooks are making purchasing decisions that say they don’t see enough added value from large publishers to justify the higher prices they have to pay. If $2.99 buys them an enjoyable reading experience, why would they pay $14.99 for an enjoyable reading experience?

The more enjoyable reading they experience for $2.99, the less likely they are to ever go back to paying $14.99. They’ll spend time digging around in the $2.99 bin to find a good book instead of paying $14.99. If they get stuck with a $2.99 clunker, they won’t give up on $2.99 books because experience has taught them there are more than a few good reads available at this price.

The question that Big Publishing can’t afford readers to ask is “Will I get five times more enjoyment if I pay $14.99?”

PG has been in the tech business for long enough to see the disruptive innovation process play out in many different markets. In each case, the incumbent market powers believe they add some special sauce to their products for which customers will always be willing to pay incumbent prices. Names like Novell, Lotus 1-2-3, Digital Equipment and Sun Microsystems come to mind, names once associated with the finest products, products that customers were happy to buy at the prices these companies set.

Today, major publishers assume today’s market will support the same prices as the book market of 2-3 years ago. They want to believe customers will agree that ebooks should be priced like printed books. They want to believe that ebook purchasers pay close attention to how much printed books cost and will use that price to determine the reasonable price for ebooks.

PG says these publishers do not understand consumer behavior.

Referring back to the OP, the relevant question in 2016 isn’t “As Writers, What Are We Worth?”

The real question is “Publishers, What Are They Worth?”


Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves

18 May 2016

From The New York Times:

When I was 13, in the early 1990s, I dug through my parents’ cache of vinyl records from the ’60s and ’70s. We still had a phonograph, so I played some of them, concentrating on the Beatles. Their bigger hits were inescapably familiar, but a number of their songs were new to me.

Were I a teenager in 2015, I may not have found “Lovely Rita” or acquired an early taste at all for the Liverpudlian lads. The albums stacked up next to the record player, in plain sight for years, would be invisible MP3s on a computer or phone that I didn’t own. Their proximal existence could have been altogether unknown to me.

S. Craig Watkins, a professor who studies the digital media behavior of young people in the department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, said that he and his family almost exclusively stream music now in their home and that he and his wife stored their old CDs in a seldom-used cabinet. To his teenage daughter, “those CDs are, at best, background matter,” he said.

“I can’t recall her ever taking time to search through what’s in there,” Professor Watkins said. “But I could imagine that when she gets a little older, it might become meaningful to her — that those artifacts are a way to connect back to us.”

Sometimes, though, he and his daughter discuss what is on their devices’ playlists.

. . . .

Aside from the disappearance of record crates and CD towers, the loss of print books and periodicals can have significant repercussions on children’s intellectual development.

Perhaps the strongest case for a household full of print books came from a 2014 study published in the sociology journal Social Forces. Researchers measured the impact of the size of home libraries on the reading level of 15-year-old students across 42 nations, controlling for wealth, parents’ education and occupations, gender and the country’s gross national product.

. . . .

After G.N.P., the quantity of books in one’s home was the most important predictor of reading performance. The greatest effect was seen in libraries of about 100 books, which resulted in approximately 1.5 extra years of grade-level reading performance.

. . . .

The implications are clear: Owning books in the home is one of the best things you can do for your children academically. It helps, of course, if parents are reading to their children and reading themselves, not simply buying books by the yard as décor.

“It is a big question of whether it’s the books themselves or the parental scholarly culture that matters — we’re guessing it’s somewhere in between,” said Mariah Evans, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. “The books partly reflect intelligence.”

Although the study did not account for e-books, as they’re not yet available in enough countries, Dr. Evans said in theory they could be just as effective as print books in encouraging literacy.

“But what about the casual atmosphere of living in a bookish world, and being intrigued to pull something off the shelf to see what it’s like?” she asked. “I think that will depend partly on the seamless integration of our electronic devices in the future.”

We’re not quite there. Amazon Kindle’s Family Library enables two adults in a household to share content with each other and up to four children. But parents must explicitly select which of their books their kids can read. So much for the “casual atmosphere of living in a bookish world.”

Will parents go out of their way to grant access to their latest book to their 9-year-old?

. . . .

But the decline of print journalism means that millions of children are eating breakfast at tables without any reading material other than what they bring. That hypothetical 9-year-old may not be inclined to read an op-ed about Syria in the family’s copy of the newspaper, but at least that child sees the headline and is reminded of the existence of the outside world, for better or worse. And it would take very curious teenagers to read, during a hurried meal before school, an adult periodical online over whatever they typically default to on their own devices.

Digital media trains us to be high-bandwidth consumers rather than meditative thinkers.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG suggests that the decline of The New York Times (and accompanying layoffs) appear to have colored the author’s view of physical books and newspapers.

The younger members of Clan PG are digital natives. They’ve grown up around computers, tablets, smartphones, etc. Finding information that fascinates them is emphatically not a challenge for these little people.

PG was about to relate anecdotes, but he will restrict himself to saying both monster truck and lemur aficionados can feed their interests easily and to a great depth online.

As a lifelong lover and rabid consumer of printed books, PG believes the digital world presents much richer possibilities for expanding an inquisitive child’s horizons and satisfying their quest for understanding and delight than the largest of home libraries.

And, considering those of modest means, how many printed books can you buy for the price of a $50 Kindle Fire? $50 does not buy most people weekly trips to the local library for very long.

Why Distributors Are Book Publishing’s New Gatekeepers

13 May 2016

From The Huffington Post:

As a former gatekeeper, I’m fascinated by the gatekeeper divide in book publishing, where the role gets falsely propped up by supporters of traditional publishing and completely dismissed by those who favor the indie space.

In a January 2015 article on Slate, former Random House editor Daniel Menaker wrote about gatekeepers (defined as editors at major houses):

In my judgment, there are between 20 and 30 editors and publishers in New York who — along with experienced and discriminating publicists, marketers, and sales reps — have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters. They have somehow survived the grinding — tectonic — friction between creativity and business and made a go of both. They are cultural heroes, actually.

By contrast, Hugh Howey posted on his blog in June 2015 that “the best thing about indie publishing is the complete lack of gatekeepers.”

Because the publishing model I’ve adopted for She Writes Press falls between traditional and self-publishing, I take issue with both extremes. Menaker represents a class of people (industry, high-brow, elitist folks) who believe that New York publishing is the center of the universe. I would venture to guess that these curators of “our life of letters” have largely made successful white male authors, and maybe a handful of white female authors. These editors have attained their eminence from a system that is set up to make successful a certain kind of writer — MFA grad from the right school, polished, mediagenic, probably young, definitely white.

. . . .

Because self-publishing lacks any kind of vetting, and because self-published authors can (and unfortunately still do) publish inferior books, all indie authors suffer together.

. . . .

But there’s another gatekeeper arising in our midst that no one is talking about — and that’s the distributor.

Right now, the biggest pain point of self-published authors is lack of distribution. If you’re a genre writer like Howey, it might not matter. For those authors making most of their money on e-books, distribution may be a take-it-or-leave-it kind of endeavor. But in the genres I work in, primarily memoir and fiction, it means everything.

I tried for one lousy season (our first season in business) to make a go at being the publisher of a self-publishing company, and immediately hit wall after wall after wall. After qualifying to sign up with a traditional distributor, the landscape opened up tremendously. Overnight our status changed from self-publisher to traditional publisher (even though we have always self-defined as hybrid). With traditional distribution, I was again working in an environment I recognized, where a sales force gets materials early, pitches books to accounts, and where preorders are placed, upon which print decisions are made. This is the traditional system, for better of for worse, and as long as we have and want retail outlets beyond Amazon, the system will continue to favor books with traditional distribution.

. . . .

Because distributors are opening up to nontraditional models, including successfully self-published authors, they’re starting to set measures that indie authors can reach to gain access. It’s unfortunate that indie authors do not have any kind of grading system in place that would give a stamp of approval to booksellers or reviewers or associations. Independent publishing desperately needs that.

Link to the rest at The Huffington Post and thanks to Celine for the tip.

PG says almost anybody can sell almost anything that’s legal on Amazon.

Do purchasers of power saws need gatekeepers to assure them of the quality of the tools they buy on Amazon? How about purchasers of shoes? Toys? Dishwashers? Cameras?

Each of these items costs more than an ebook and consumers have no problem buying them without a gatekeeper. Especially since they can return what they bought to Amazon for a full refund if they don’t like it.

PG suggests that those performing a gatekeeping function believe gatekeeping is important because it’s depressing to think otherwise. Do people buying books, etc., even think about gatekeepers that may have inserted themselves into the chain of commerce? If they do think of gatekeepers, are they motivated to buy a product that has made it through the gate rather than one that hasn’t received the stamp of approval but still looks good?

PG doesn’t think so. In an internet age, consumers have access to huge troves of information about virtually any consumer good, including books, before they purchase it. They’ll use whatever information they feel they need to make a purchase decision and return any products they don’t like for a refund.

Additionally, 99.99% of readers simply don’t believe buying a book that disappoints them is the end of the world.

A physical bookstore has to be a gatekeeper because it can’t hold all the books in the world. PG thinks that’s a bug, not a feature.

Earlier this evening (PG is writing this on Thursday night), after Mrs. PG and PG went out for an early dinner, Mrs. PG suggested they visit a nearby Barnes & Noble, something neither has done for months.

PG was disappointed with how sparse the History section was. He has read some really terrific histories of this and that over the past few months and not a single one of those books was in the store.

Mrs. PG was looking for mysteries and couldn’t believe how little space was devoted to those books in comparison with the same store a couple of years ago. Both of us walked out without making a purchase or even coming close to making a purchase. Nothing about the experience encouraged us to return in the future.

In an earlier time, PG might have purchased a pretty good book because he’s almost always in the market for a new book. These days, if PG wants a really great book, he can always find one by spending a few minutes on Amazon. He no longer has to accept pretty good because a gatekeeper doesn’t understand what PG really likes.

Birth of a Publisher

12 May 2016

From Authors Electric:

OK, so this is not about self-publishing and it’s not exclusively about digital, but it’s a case study of how two people with more ideals than sense decided to start a publishing company that would operate rather differently from the traditional model and the Big Five. If anyone else out there wants to follow suit, it might help you to avoid some of the mistakes we made.

. . . .

It was in the Roxy bar in Siena some time in July 2014. I was there drinking coffee with my husband Stephen Barber (I think he had a round cake too) and we were sitting outside, when the heavens opened and we were going to get soaked.

We ran inside and ordered another round of coffee while we waited out the storm. I had a notebook and pen with me (naturally) and we had been talking for some time about possibly starting an independent publishing house. We knew from blogs like this and the experience of friends that it was getting easier for complete tyros to bring out good-looking books.

We talked and roughed out a possible two-year publishing schedule. There are a couple of books Stephen wants to write and I had the feeling that no-one was going to want to publish my next two YA novels, which were both historical, so this could be a vehicle for both of us.

But I was also acutely aware of the tough time fellow YA novelists were having in getting publishing contracts – great writers, some of them prize-winning but writing the kind of books that just weren’t fashionable currently.

. . . .

It took a bit longer to take the definitive steps towards making it real but in October 2014 we registered The Greystones Press with Companies House. It was on a Sunday and took less than an hour. Setting up a business bank account with HSBC, however, took MUCH longer.

. . . .

My agent had sent a synopsis and some sample chapters to the main publishers the year before but had replies like “we already have a book on Shakespeare” or “we’ll need to see the whole text.” For someone who had been accustomed to sell a book on a paragraph or two of an idea, this could have been a bitter blow. But I determined that this was just the way things were now and wrote a different novel – of which more anon.

But having missed the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 2014, I suddenly realised that I had to get a move on if I wanted to make this year’s 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.

I finished the first draft on January 22nd 2015, aware that no conventional publisher would be likely to get the book out in time, allowing for revisions, submission and then my agent sending it round all the publishers. So we said, “October then”, to get it out at the same time as the other Shakespeare titles.

. . . .

So we had some books. But what next? We had initially decided to do a small print run of paperbacks for review copies and author copies and then do Print on Demand (POD). And we would do ebooks too.

What we had to find was editors, designers and other team members. So we joined the Independent Publishers Group (IPG), got their book and started trawling the Net for likely people. Then we had a piece of good fortune – we found Talya Baker, who not only is a superb copy-editor but took on the role of Project Manager for fiction for us.

Talya, with whom I’d worked briefly at Bloomsbury, introduced us to the other rock of our enterprise, Nigel Hazle, Text Designer.

. . . .

To stop this post from being too long, I’ll whizz through some of the stages: we had to discover about writing Advance Information sheets (AIs), Press Releases, buying ISBNs and tangling with Nielsen’s Title Editor online.

We had to commission and provide material for a website, write contracts, decide what to do about PR, choose covers for five books, work out how on earth we were going to publish the illustrated book (of the kind we positive were not going to do, remember), re-think the whole POD and ebook model, have stationery designed, etc. etc.

. . . .

We had been veering towards Ingrams (Lightning Source) because of the shipping costs from America of using CreateSpace but as we were going to be a small independent publishing house rather than a self-publisher, we were fearful that bookshops would not only not stock but also not order our titles if they were POD only. A brutally frank email from a US publisher we were talking to made us think again about our publishing model.

. . . .

Kindle accounts for 85% of ebook sales so we have gone for the KDP Kindle Select option, which brings in 70% of the price, in return for exclusivity.

If you want your books available for other platforms, the royalty drops to 35%. Our margins are so tight on the paperbacks (see, I even talk like a publisher now) that it will be n Kindle if anywhere that we make some money, enough to enable us to publish more books.

Link to the rest at Authors Electric and thanks to Diana for the tip.

PG says these new publishers seem to be intelligent and well-intentioned people, but he wondered about the contracts they ask their authors to sign. Specifically, how long those contracts last.

PG hopes they did not follow standard industry practice and make their publishing contracts last for the life of the copyright or some other ridiculously long period of time.

It’s a big risk for an author to sign up with a new publisher. Most such publishers (like most new businesses) will not be successful and close their doors within a few years. If the authors can walk away with their work, both author and publisher can agree it was a tough learning experience but tomorrow will be a brighter day.

However, if the author’s work is tied up with a typical publishing contract, the author may not be able to walk away with his/her work. Rights to those books may go to whoever buys the assets of the failed publisher, either via the bankruptcy court or in a forced sale.

The publisher’s founders may have been the nicest, most honorable and well-meaning people in the world. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no guarantee that owner #2 will be of similar character. Every industry includes a collection of sleazeballs and thieves and publishing is no exception.

There are two simple contractual means of avoiding or ameliorating the author’s damages. Either one is good. Both are better.

  1. A Change of Control contract provision. Boiled down to basics, this clause says if the current owners lose ownership or control of the publisher, the author has the right to terminate the publishing contract and all rights to his/her book will revert. (PG notes that, if the publisher files for bankruptcy relief, the bankruptcy court may have something to say about enforcement of the Change of Control provision. Further discussion would put you to sleep.)
  2. A contract that lasts for a specific and limited period of time. Three years, five years, seven years would seem to give a publisher, old or new, the opportunity to demonstrate that the relationship is worthwhile to the author. If everyone is happy, they can renew the contract for another specified period of time. If not, entering into the contract may have been a regrettable experience, but not a disastrous one for the author.



26 April 2016

From time to time, PG is approached by artists who create infographics with an infographic which may be of interest to authors. These artists suggest that PG might like to publish their infographic on TPV.

PG has declined such requests, not because infographics are a bad thing or the particular infographic is inaccurate or poorly designed, but because he has doubts about whether infographics in general would fit into whatever visual vibe exists on TPV and be of interest to lots of visitors.

One of the online rules PG violates is Online Rule 37: Illustrations, photos, animations, Vines, videos, etc., etc., etc. should be inserted in lots of different places so several appear on every screen a visitor sees. TPV is much too text-heavy to comply with this particular best practice.

However, PG could be wrong about infographics. (He’s not going to use Vines no matter what anyone thinks or says.)

If you have an opinion about whether infographics would be a good thing for The Passive Voice, feel free to voice it in a comment.

Know Your Rights

23 April 2016

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

I recently got an email that sent a chill through me. It was a newsletter from a traditional publishing organization. This organization is geared toward publishers and editors, not toward writers.

The newsletter was essentially an ad for an upcoming seminar that will teach publishers to understand intellectual property and expand their rights business.

Why did this send a chill through me? Because the one thing that has protected writers who signed bad contracts is the fact that their traditional publishers have no idea how to exploit the rights they licensed.

. . . .

[I]n short, most publishers ask for more than they have ever used in the past. Publishers have been very short sighted in how they published books.

. . . .

Ten years ago, it was relatively easy to get the rights reverted on a book like that. Essentially both parties agreed that the terms of the contract had been met, that the parties no longer had need of the relationship, and so they severed their business relationship.

It wasn’t easy-peasy, but it wasn’t hard either. It usually took a letter or two.

By 2005, however, most agents refused to write that letter which severed the contract. The reason was simple from the agent’s perspective. Many, many, many agents used a combination of their agency agreement and a clause in the writer’s book contract to define their relationship with the writer, and determine who controlled the marketing and finances of that book.

It wasn’t in the agent’s best interest to cancel the contract. In fact, the longer the contract existed, the better it was for the agent.

Writers with agents would have to write those letters themselves—and then, publishers would often contact the agent to find out why the agent was “letting” the writer do this.

. . . .

In the last year or so, I’ve been hearing from writers who say it’s almost impossible to get their rights reverted. The publishers want to hold onto those rights as long as possible.

The main reason for this has nothing to do with reprinting the book or keeping the book in the marketplace. It has to do with the changes in accounting that have occurred in the big traditional publishing companies.

The Big 5 (4? 3? Whatever. Jeez.) are now part of international conglomerates. Those conglomerates understand that intellectual property has as much value or more value than the buildings and land that the conglomerates use to house their businesses.

Those conglomerates put all of the intellectual property on their account books as an asset. So your novel—even if it’s more or less out of print (or has a $19.99 ebook like my novel Fantasy Life)—has a value assigned to it that reflects not only its earnings right now, but its potential earnings in the future.

The command came down from on high that publishers should retain the assets as best as possible. (I’m pretty sure some of these publishing companies were purchased for their intellectual property assets, not because of their bottom lines. I have no interest in proving that, though.)

So, publishers have kept the assets, doing the minimum to retain the rights to them. But they really haven’t maximized their profits.

. . . .

In practice, publishers have started to claim rights they never had. They’re interpreting the contract terms for something negotiated in 1997 by 2016 standards, and finding ways not to pay for those uses.

Big corporations are all about profit for the corporation. The best way to maximize profit is to lower expenses.

That’s why, after these big companies merge, you see layoffs a year or so later. That gives the new company time to define itself, find employees with overlapping duties, and streamline production.

Once the layoffs are over, once the agreements with the subcontractors (like printers and distributors) end or get renegotiated, the corporations look around for other ways to cut expenses.

The easiest way is to cut the payments to the suppliers—the writers.

. . . .

Just be aware that publishers often cut payments, and they use the contract as their guide. Not necessarily the contract negotiated in good faith with a corporate entity long merged into five other corporate entities, but the corporate entity that exists now.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch and thanks to Bruce for the tip.

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like an author’s post, you can show your appreciation by checking out their books.

As usual, Kris does an excellent job of talking about the business/legal aspects of being a successful professional writer.

PG would like to talk a bit about authors making a decision to sign a publishing contract with a particular publisher or editor.

Isn’t that a huge reason why most authors sign a publishing contract? RomancesRUs is the hottest publisher around and some of their authors are New York Times Bestsellers. And Leticia is the best romance editor who ever walked the earth plus she is so nice on the phone. (ditto for SciFiRUs, etc.)

The idea that no one will remember RomancesRUs in ten years and Leticia will be fired in six months doesn’t enter most authors’ calculations.

It is the nature of declining businesses to attempt to consolidate their way to survival. That’s what’s been happening in big and small publishing for awhile and what will continue to happen.

Many authors sign with a publisher because of that publisher’s reputation for quality books and successful authors. Some authors will sign because they’ll be working with an editor with a great reputation for excellence and success, the kind of editor that bestselling writers mention in interviews.

Similar thinking goes into an author’s decision to sign with a star agent, one with many happy authors who say nice things about the agent’s work.

These would be good business reasons to sign a contract that lasted for five years.

However, current reputations and past successes are a terrible reason to sign a contract that will tie up rights to an author’s books for the full term of the copyright. As a reminder, in the US, copyrights last for as long as the author lives plus 70 years.

In a successful business, management can last for a long time and often the original management hires new managers with similar business acumen and passes down the business principles that lead to that success through the hierarchy. Such businesses can work their way into long-term success.

When a business is declining, especially when it is part of a declining industry, management turnover and ownership changes become near-constants. Yesterday’s management practices are no longer today’s management practices. Some investors make a lot of money by acquiring problem businesses, cutting costs to the bone, then harvesting profits (pulling cash out the business) or finding someone else to buy the business because its financial statements now look better.

Traditional publishing is in decline. How long the decline might last is speculative. However, the words of Ernest Hemingway are instructive. “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission requires mutual funds to warn their investors that “Past performance is not a predictor of future results.”

Of course, an investor who bought into a mutual fund can sell his/her shares and have nothing further to do with that fund and its managers. A hedge fund that purchased a publisher can sell the publisher and be done with it. Since no US state permits life-time employment contracts, a publishing executive or editor can either quit immediately or wait a couple of years, then bail out on a failing publisher.

Only the authors who signed contracts that last for the full term of the copyright are tied to whatever corporate entity once called itself a publisher, but now is a hedge fund asset, for the rest of their lives plus 70 years.

(PG will note that a provision in US Copyright Law permits the creator of a copyrighted work or his/her heirs to terminate a contract 35 years after publication or 40 years after the contract was signed, but it doesn’t happen automatically and 35/40 years is also way too long. PG won’t get into the technicalities of this part of the law.)

“But it’s a contract for only one book,” an author might say. PG won’t take more space to discuss unfair non-compete clauses, option clauses, etc., can undercut the excuse that it’s only one book. Such clauses can affect a whole bunch of books.

Under current contract practices, the author is the only person who has to think in the long term while everyone else in the publishing business is focused on the short term.

Publishing contracts need to include provisions that end the contracts after a few years so the author can have the same flexibility as everyone else involved with the author’s books.

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