[F]or years, I’ve been wondering why big traditional publishing companies aren’t licensing their backlist. There’s a million ways to make money off copyright licenses, and the most obvious is to keep books in print. Yet so many big traditional publishing companies don’t keep their books in print.
Or, worse, in my opinion, those companies don’t publish ebook versions of their catalog. All of their backlist in their catalogs. Realize that this isn’t thousands of titles for them. In the case of some of the larger companies, the title list has to be closer to a million.
But the companies have no idea which books they still can license, whether or not the old contracts have clauses in them that allow ebooks, or even who handles the estate of those old books. I had just read a Daphne Du Maurier novel, My Cousin Rachel, which had recently been made into a movie, and it took me a lot of scrolling to find that book. I want to read more of her work, but I’m going slowly in ordering it or buying it.
. . . .
We’ve hit the point in the ebook revolution—the online revolution really—where we expect everything (and I do mean everything) to be at our fingertips.
So back to Led Zeppelin. The band is fifty years old this year. And yeah, jeez, that hurts. Because I remember when they were the epitome of cool (and being young and not being understood by the old fogies). Anyway, the folks at Warner Music Group which apparently owns or licensed most of Zeppelin’s catalog, were planning some kind of celebration of the band.
Instead of issuing a retrospective album, they set up a website with a logo name generator. You plug in your name, and it comes up in the Zeppelin iconic font. That’s not the coolest thing about the website, though. The coolest thing is the playlist generator, which allows users to compile their own playlist of Zeppelin songs or covers of Led Zeppelin songs, and then share those playlists on social media.
Think about that for a moment: the website, if set up properly, will help Warner Music Group know what songs from the Led Zeppelin catalog (and related catalogs, like Jack White’s, are the most beloved). That information can be used in marketing later.
This little landing page, with its logo generator and its playlist generator, will then direct users to the Zeppelin website, where you’ll find all the fiftieth anniversary goodies, including the ubiquitous best-of collection and an authorized book about the band.
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According to Rolling Stone:
The [logo] site received more than 200,000 unique visitors in its first 10 days, with users making 230,000 logos and 20,000 custom playlists. The “biggest uplift” was from White’s playlist, branded as “Led Zeppelin x Jack White,” which drew thousands of users each day — which translates to hundreds of thousands of streams, which translates to a steady stream of cash to Warner and Led Zeppelin without the band lifting a finger.
Hundreds of thousands of streams, “without the band lifting a finger.” Passive income, based on one idea. Yes, streaming services don’t pay a large amount for streams, but they pay. And even a small amount of money adds up when it is multiplied by hundreds of thousands. Not counting the visibility, discoverability, and all those other “abilities” that come from the social media shares, and the links between the various playlist generators. They all play into the streaming services algorithms, which results in even more recognition, and more plays.
Once upon a time (maybe as recently as three years ago) working with what we call the backlist and what the recording industry calls “catalog marketing” was the unlit basement of the industry. No one wanted that job. It wasn’t glamorous, and it barely earned its way.
But that’s changing, and changing rapidly. Apparently, consumers no longer care about the latest and greatest thing. They want what’s new to them. More than that, they want something that they like.
This is where sync marketing comes in. A lot of younger consumers buy music because they heard it on their favorite TV show or in an important scene in a blockbuster movie. From the Rolling Stone article:
Tiffany’s 1987 cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” has seen 42 percent of its all-time Shazams come after it appeared in Netflix’s 2019 series The Umbrella Academy, and several tracks from the 1940s to 1970s climbed up the company’s global charts after floating into people’s ears from the background of Avengers: Endgame.
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I’ve noted for years now that traditional publishers have become reluctant to let go of a license once they receive it. In other words, books don’t go out of print anymore, no matter how badly the publisher is mismanaging the book. (In the past, if the book wasn’t in stores, the writer could get her rights back. Not anymore.)
Someone in that megaconglomerate knows that these rights are worth money. They’re worth a lot as assets on a balance sheet, but in the music industry, anyway, they’re also being turned into active revenue streams.
When this starts happening to books—and it will—writers are going to have to be vigilant about their contracts. They’re going to have to see if the contract’s vague 1997 language covers things like streaming rights or omnibus rights or any one of a dozen other ways to license that print book into something new.
What will probably happen is that publishing companies will do what they always do—figure it’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to ask for permission. They’ll also not want to make payments, so writers are going to have to start auditing their publishers (which no traditionally published writer will do for fear of being blacklisted—because that’s what agents tell them to do. Sigh.
. . . .
So…be warned. Changes are coming, traditionally published writers. Within five years or so, expect a department of back catalog management in your publisher’s offices (if that department doesn’t already exist now). Expect to have every inch of your contract exploited by that department—and maybe some rights you didn’t license as well.
PG says that many authors have so much emotional energy (and more than a bit of insecurity) tied up with their publisher that they desperately want to believe that publisher will always be honest and considerate of their welfare. Unfortunately, such is not always (or even frequently) the case.