A respectful question to authors using traditional publishers

… “Do you realize how much are you paying for the services provided by your publisher?”
 
For a middle-aged writer, a publishing contract in today’s standard form will likely last well over 100 years. The book’s US copyright will last for the remaining years of the author’s life plus 70 years thereafter and so will the publishing contract. Copyrights in other nations are of similar duration.
 
Under a typical publishing contract, the author will be paying others over 80% of the retail revenues from ebook sales and licenses. If print books continue to be a mass market product for the next 100 years, the author will be paying others 85-95% of retail revenues.
 
Of course, the author won’t be writing checks to these other parties. They’ll pay themselves before the publisher sends any money to the author, but the financial result is the same as if the author were writing the checks.
 
Those percentages are fixed under a standard publishing contract signed today and, regardless of what happens in the future, nothing in that contract obliges the publisher to change the royalty structure included in the contract until it terminates along with the copyright in 100 years.
 

 
Virtually everything about today’s book business other than stories and storytellers will evolve in 100 years. Does it really make sense for an author to contractually commit her stories to an organization that will almost certainly cease to exist in a form she would recognize before that contractual commitment expires?

from The Passive Voice,
A Lawyer’s Thoughts on Authors,
Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing

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Publishers and authors: Behind the scenes

Do you really think publishers have authors’ best interests at heart?

willpublishforfoodMost writers don’t make a lot of money. Forget the James Pattersons, Lee Childs and J K Rowlings. They’re outliers; the exceptions. 99% of writers only make a pittance from their work and are dependant on daytime jobs or grants or university tenures in order to be able to afford to write. So when you hear of a Big Five publishing house deliberately setting out to rip off its authors, paying them only a few cents per book sold, it’s sickening.

Back in 2012, Ann Voss Peterson wrote a guest blog for Joe Konrath. Author of 25 books for Harlequin, with copies in all the book stores, an office overflowing with foreign editions from countries she’d never visited, and around three million books in print, Peterson couldn’t afford to write for them any more.

“Let me share with you the numbers of a book I wrote that was first published in January, 2002, still one of my favourites. My life-to-date statement says this book has sold 179,057 copies so far, and it has earned $20,375.22. That means the average I’ve earned is a whopping 11 cents per copy.”

It seems that Harlequin leased authors’ ebook rights to a company it also owned, effectively reducing their royalties from 50% to 3% for contracts signed between 1990 and 2004.

Here’s Peterson’s original breakdown:

This is how the numbers break down when Retailer X lists the ebook for $4.00 (doesn’t matter what they sell it for).

Retailer – $2.00 (any discounts are taken from this amount)
Harlequin’s related licensee – $1.88
Harlequin – $.06
Author – $.06

So Harlequin makes a total of 1.94, and I make .06.

A few months after her blog posting, three Harlequin authors filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, and four years on, Harlequin — now owned by HarperCollins — settled out of court to the tune of US$4.1 million.

Not that the company admits any wrongdoing, of course:

“The Settlement does not mean that any law was broken or that Defendants did anything wrong. By settling, Defendants are not admitting any wrongdoing or liability. Defendants continue to deny all legal claims in this case. Plaintiffs and their lawyers believe the Settlement is in the best interests of all class members.”

In her original post, Peterson said she loved writing for Harlequin:

“I had four editors during that time, and all of them were great to work with. The senior editor [had] a strong vision for the line … and Harlequin throws the best parties in all of publishing, hands down.”

All of which brings to mind a line from the classic 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon. Trapped in a bank by the cops during a bungled robbery attempt, Al Pacino’s character, Sonny Wortzik, is offered unconscionable surrender terms by Sergeant Moretti:

Wortzik: Kiss me, man.
Moretti:  What?
Wortzik: Kiss me. When I’m being fucked, I like to get kissed …

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Two more ways publishers shaft writers

contractThe latest posting on Writer Beware
looks at the arbitration clauses buried in almost all publishing contracts. These clauses say that in the event of a dispute between author and publisher, the matter will be dealt with by an independent arbitrator — which at first sight seems reasonable enough, except that;

  • Arbitration clauses are binding, and supersede your right to go to court.
  • Going to arbitration is NOT like appearing before a judge. Arbitrators are “largely at liberty to determine how much evidence a plaintiff can present and how much the defence can withhold.”
  • Arbitrators are supposed to be impartial, but aren’t necessarily.
  • Arbitrators’ decisions are hard to challenge. Courts are reluctant to reverse them, even where they are obviously unfair.
  • Arbitration can cost you, even beyond any judgement that may go against you. In addition to travel and filing fees, you may have to pay the arbitrator.
  • Christian organizations sometimes require Christian arbitration. Prayer and scripture may be given preference over law and evidence.
  • Some arbitration clauses include bans on class actions. “By banning class actions, companies have essentially disabled consumer challenges to practices like predatory lending, wage theft and discrimination. … Once blocked from going to court as a group, most people dropped their claims entirely.”

Meanwhile, The Passive Voice, highlights deep discount clauses in many publishing contracts that let publishers offer titles to booksellers and wholesalers at big markdowns while disproportionally marking down the author’s share.

The original posting comes from the US Authors Guild which says:

We’ve seen these discount double-crosses applied for sales to book clubs and book fairs, for “special sales” in bulk outside the usual book trade, for large-print editions, for export editions. Let’s say the publisher sells our sample book in bulk for just $2.00. The discount double-crossed author would get one thin dime per copy, a royalty cut of an astounding 93%—even though the net to the publisher would decline by less than 33%.

Even crazier, some reductions can apply even to direct sales from publishers to readers, despite the fact that the publisher gets to keep the share of the transaction that would normally go to a retailer or wholesaler. If anything, an author’s royalty rate on such direct sales should be higher than normal.

Passive Guy, (a lawyer himself), notes:

Standard publishing contracts from large traditional publishers stand out in the constellation of business contracts for their one-sidedness and, in some cases, outright duplicity for anyone who fails to read them very carefully. The way that Randy Penguin and its cohorts write their standard contracts is not the way that Apple, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Disney, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, American Express, Merrill Lynch and similar entities write their contracts.
 
PG doesn’t agree with many initiatives undertaken by the Authors Guild, but he’s pleased to see their latest efforts to shine a light on some of the most abusive contract provisions routinely employed by Big Publishing.
 
However, the cynic in PG holds little hope that AG’s efforts will bring about any meaningful reform. Treating authors badly is too much a part of the corporate and cultural DNA of traditional publishing to change. These dinosaurs will die before they evolve.

And in the Comments section, author/publisher Kristine Rusch (AKA Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kristine Grayson and Kris Nelscott) adds:

It’s really ugly in trad pub contract and royalty land these days. That’s why I continually tell writers who want to be trad pubbed to hire a LAWYER to negotiate their contracts, not an agent (even if it were legal for an agent to do it, which it is not. [sigh]). But do these writers listen? Nope.

 

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