On the business of publishing

SFWA vs. Hydra: An early image of the smackdown.

There’s been lots of good, righteous anger aimed at Random House for the contract terms offered by their e-book only imprints, namely Alibi (crime fiction) and Hydra (SF/F). Long story short, they are bad terms indeed. The author doesn’t get paid squat until the publisher recoups every last dime of cost for getting the book out. For more, I suggest reading John Scalzi’s screeds on the topic, both for the information and the entertainment value.

Why are these contracts such a problem? Because authors and publishers have a partnership in both product and the risks associated with selling it. The author has already risked a great deal of time and energy in writing the book — a book that, sadly, may not sell enough to justify said time and energy. The author must also rely on the publisher to — at the very least — ensure that the book shows up at all major retailers and in all agreed-upon formats, online and off. The author typically has little control over whether this is done adequately or not, and likewise has little say in how the publisher will spend its marketing dollars on the book.

Of course, publishers carry risk as well, in terms of the investments necessary to produce the and distribute the work, which are often substantial. That’s why most contracts leave the bulk of gross sales money to the publisher. The author typically gets an advance against royalties, and then gets a relatively small piece of each book once the advance is earned out. (In other words, the book needs to sell a certain number of copies before the author sees additional money.)

With all that said, should we be surprised that publishers like Random House are trying to shove more risk off their books and onto authors? Absolutely not. And here’s why.

Despite what Mitt Romney says, corporations are not people, my friend. More importantly, they are not your friend. Publishers, being corporations of one size or another, have no moral obligation to authors beyond adhering to their contracts. Indeed, publishers’ true moral obligations are to their owners/shareholders first, then the customers who buy their books, then their employees…and then only to the authors and the other people who provide the goods and services they need to operate their business.

Yes, I’m deliberately placing authors in the same categories as the guys who supply the paper for the printing presses and the vendor who runs their Web pages. Save the indignation, because it’s true. We as authors simply provide material necessary for publishers to create products to sell to customers. Granted, in the publishing hierarchy of needs, the story really is paramount. Without writers, there’s nothing to sell.

However, let’s not mistake ourselves for being the primary concern of publishers. Like any business, they have owners, whether those owners are public shareholders or private investors. Those people have laid down their money to help fund the company’s operations, and they expect a return on that investment. They are, in essence, the company. And like any investor, they would like to minimize risk and maximize return. I mean, you have a 401(k) or 529 college plan, right? Wouldn’t you prefer to have your stocks and bonds increase in value all the time? It’s impossible, but it’s that impetus that’s at work here.  That’s why you have “creative” contracts like the ones Hydra and Alibi are tossing out there. The publishers are simply acting upon their moral imperative to minimize the risk to their ownership.

As for the employees of the publisher — not only the accountants and lawyers, but the editors and graphic artists — they ultimately serve the interests of their employers, and rightfully so. Look, these are generally good people here. Many of them want to see authors succeed — not only because it helps the publisher, but because it’s great to see good things happen to nice people. But authors aren’t the ones cutting paychecks. When push comes to shove, editors are answerable to publishers, not the authors, and editors and everyone else working for the publishing company has to put food on the table.

That, I think, is the big disconnect here. Our editors and publishers are nice people. They want us to succeed, and we as authors become friendly with them in the course of working on our books. They also like our writing, and let’s face it, we authors love that. They’re our first and, often, our most ardent fans. We see them as our allies.

I hate to say it, but they’re not. They’re our business partners. Nothing more. That isn’t to say you can’t have a good working business partnership that is both profitable and amicable. Ideally, that’s how it works all the time. But let’s face it, even that’s more the Platonic idea of publishing.

Random House and others say that this new business model allows new writers to break into publishing. The quality of a piece of writing is inherently subjective, after all, and there really is no telling what’s going to be the next hit. (Just look at Fifty Shades.) By taking on less risk, Random House claims it can take more chances on more writers.

Sorry, but I’m not buying it. If anything, this business model will encourage writers who need more writing and more seasoning to jump at the chance of getting published. Most will fail, just as the vast majority of self-published work fails to reach triple-digits in sales. As for any successes Alibi or Hydra may have, authors run the risk that creative accounting on the publishers’ part — again, part of their imperative to serve ownership — will reduce authors’ share to the same level, or worse, as the traditional advance-and-royalty system.  That’s not profit-sharing.

Remember, the publisher is there to make money off your work. You’re there to make money off them. You each have something the other wants, something of value. As Scalzi points out, if they offer you a contract, you have something they want — your book. So it’s incumbent on you to ensure you get the most value out of that book, and, basically, take them for all you can get. Because they will try to take you for all they can get as well. That’s literally how capitalism works, people.

Thankfully, we as authors — individually and collectively — do have some power in this situation. Thanks to the kerfuffle around these Random House contracts, it’s very unlikely that Alibi and Hydra will attract the kind of talent they need to be a success. Furthermore, if other publishers try something like this, they will likewise see authors unwilling to do business with them as well. Publishers who try this will take a beating in the press, as Random House has.

And if they keep it up, they will run out of good stories to publish. That’s the power we have as writers, and let’s not give that up for a second.

So if you’re not yet published, don’t be tempted by crap-tastic contract terms like the one Random House is offering, because if you give them an inch, they will indeed take a mile. If you can’t get an agent or if you can’t find a publisher, you can always self-publish — at least you’ll know exactly how much you’ll spend and how much you’ll need to turn a profit. My advice, though…keep writing, keep revising. Become a better writer, then tilt at those agent/publisher windmills again when you’ve improved. Be good enough for publishers to want to pay you.

And if you are already published, then understand that while your publishers are your business partners, they aren’t your pals. It’s incumbent on us (and our literary agents!) to ensure that our publishers fulfill every bit of our contracts, in spirit and letter. That’s not mean-spirited, that’s just good business.

Finally, if you’re just a fan who likes to read good stuff, then I’d simply urge you to avoid books from imprints like Alibi and Hydra, and opt for books from either individual self-published authors or from publishers who share the risks and rewards with authors equitably.

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