Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Love of Money: The Publishing Biz

Appropriately, maybe, lyrics from the Randy Newman song, "It's Money That I Love:"

It's Money That I Love/
It's Money That I Love/

(Spoken:) They say that money/ 
Can't buy love in this world/
But it'll get you a half-pound of cocaine/
And a sixteen-year old girl/
And a great big long limousine/

On a hot September night/
Now that may not be love/
But it is all right ...

On the surface, and as yet unproven, it appears that there is a problem in the publishing industry in regard to ebook royalties for the authors. 

Several writers of larger sales stature than I have noticed that there seems to be a discrepancy or five in the reports from their publishers, to wit:

eBook sales have been underreported.

There has been some back-and-forth among us, and even with only a handful as a sample, the evidence, while sketchy, would seem to favor this notion. Money that should be in the writers' pockets isn't getting passed along in a timely manner. Or maybe not at all. A better look at it here.

This concerns me, of course, though less directly than it does some of my fellow scribes. That's because most of my ebooks are titles that a) I published myself, or: b) shared-universes, for which I don't get a piece of the electronic action. I do have a couple that were mine put up as ebooks by my publishers, and while it might not ding me as hard, the ding is apt to be much bigger for those who sell more books via traditional publishers' e-tie-ins.

So far, we are talking anecdotal, and I won't bandy about the stories, save a general happenstance: Say a writer has a series of books set in the same world. Some in print, some not, and the publisher puts one up as an ebook, the writer puts up a different title. The one the publisher puts up supposedly sells thirty copies, and the one the writer puts up sells three hundred copies. 

Now there are reasons that this might be so, availability, for instance. But if a writer sticks up a backlist book that never did well that sells three hundred copies, and the publisher puts up one that is a current New York Times Bestseller and it sells that many, or fewer, you can understand how a writer might look at that and wonder. And if five or six writers all notice the same thing, that might indicate a pattern.

Maybe not. But: If it's a pattern, is it deliberate? Or is it poor accounting from hidebound publishers who haven't even figured out how to turn on their Kindles? Or is it a–gasp!–conspiracy!? 

How do we check? 

Well, here is the dreaded word: audit.

Most book contracts offer a passing nod to the writer's right to ask for a look at the books. Practically-speaking, this seldom happens, because the roadblocks are many, tall and wide. It has happened that a writer demanded an accounting and got it, but it is rare.

However, there are a number of writing organizations, each genre has them, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, horror, romance, etc. If several of these band together and truck on down to the publishers' houses, it is more likely that the bean-counters will be turned loose.

If there's no problem, then that's the end of it. If it is just pen and paper trying to run with the computers, the methods can be updated.

If it turns out that any significant amount of money has been withheld and directed into the wrong pockets? Then we are talking class-action lawsuit. 

And probably interesting times. 

The times, actually, are already interesting. Traditional publishers are losing sales on hardbacks, starting to seriously lose them on paperbacks, and making more every day on ebooks. Might be that somebody is robbing Peter to pay Paul, and if so, we need to know about it.

Stay tuned.


Dan Moran said...

FS& royalty statements have the email addresses of the purchasers (only the writers or copyright holders get them, but they do get them.)

This is the solution to that problem. If your fans say they purchased X from email address Y, and it's not in the statement, you know something's rotten in Denmark ...

VC said...

What would it cost to get you to write a book on spec if you got to keep ALL licensing? In a hypothetical nutshell if I won the lottery and wanted a book written so I could read it but cared nothing about what you did with the result, is there a number, can you share it?

Steve Perry said...

I like Dan's method.

As for writing for hire, I've done that a bunch of times. It's called work-for-hire, and what it means is you do the book but don't own the copyright. Sometimes it is for a small percentage and an advance; sometimes it's for a flat-fee and no royalty, it depends on the project.

And the number varies, depending on who it is, how fast they want it, how long it is, and how busy I am. If you don't ask people who have big buck for a hefty fee, they don't respect you.

Once, I had a game company wanted me to write a novel to showcase their video game. Some of them were fans and they liked me, but I didn't really want to do it all that much. Said so.

Give us a number, they said, c'mon.

Fine. Sixty thousand plus a royalty.

Okay, they said. How much royalty do you think is fair? Would fifty percent be okay?

I swallowed my gum. They didn't know from book royalties. They were gonna put a copy in with every game they sold, and the previous game sold a million units or some such.

Greed fogged my vision.

I took the job. Book turned out okay -- and it never saw the light of day. Company got bought by a bigger company a month after I signed on, and they killed the project. I got to keep the advance.

Anonymous said...

Being a recycling luddite, I prefer to have a physical book and purchase used if I can (book quality, availability etc). Other then sending the author a check, there must be a way to make sure the author is compensated for the repurchase.

SP, you must run into that for your out-of-print runs.

Steve Perry said...

Anon --

Last time looked, in England, if a library bought your book and stocked it, the writer would get a small fee every time the book was checked out.

I dunno what the laws are elsewhere, but in the U.S., the writer's contract can be stretched to cover all kinds of things, foreign rights, movies, radio, TV, comics, games, coffee mugs, whatever, but not used books.

Nobody gets a piece of that save the re-seller. And I'm okay with that when books are physical objects.

Copyright violations include reproducing the book for distribution in any form, whether you do it for profit or free. That I'm against.

eBook are easier to copy and pass around, and some people will.

Some ebook stores have a money-back policy. You download the book and if you don't like it, you can say so and they will credit your account. In some cases this is valid -- you buy something and it's not what you thought ti was going to be. In other cases, readers abuse it. Buy it, read it, send it back, presto! it's free! I dunno of those stores track that, nor what they do if they notice somebody is buying books but getting refunds on them all.