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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Social media snake oil

Chris Syme of CKSyme Media Group has some advice for authors:

The book marketing sector, more than any I have ever worked in, is full of bad marketing advice.

In a guest post on Writer Beware, Chris takes on a few of the more popular scams.

snakeOil

Hashtags

Research shows that tweets containing one or more hashtags are 55% more likely to be retweeted than tweets that don’t. So the more hashtags, the better. Right?

Wrong!

Other research documents what you might call “hashtag fatigue”. When you use more than two hashtags, your engagement actually drops by an average of 17 percent.

Not a day goes by that I don’t see this scam retweeted by several authors, maybe because they promised to help promote the service for more free tweets that will “reach millions of people generating a truly astonishing amount of traffic.” All these hashtag-laden tweets do is annoy people. To the savvy social media user, they reek of stupidity.

 

Buy thousands of followers

marketingScam

Chris documents another well-known scam in marketing circles; fake accounts that lure thousands of u

nsuspecting followers. These followers are then on-sold as tweeting platforms with supposedly massive reach.

She tried a test. $19 for 375,000 followers. Result: zero sales and zero new Twitter followers.
<blockquote”>Scam artists know what they are doing. They are playing on peoples’ pain points and ignorance. They can build fake followings completely on accounts that follow back automatically. Keep in mind that all you need to start a Twitter account is an email address. It’s an ugly, dark business.

 

Book promotion — for a price

She also takes issue with some book promotion sites. There are good ones — she lists a few — and plenty of dodgy ones.

It is impossible to list all the suspect author marketing services out there … [but generally]these sites ask for money for their suspect services. There is no information on their “about” pages that validates their expertise or existence, just blabbing about the reach of their audience. They are not published authors or even legitimate marketing services. They are product-only.

Very much a case of author beware!

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The case against Author Solutions

No_ASIAuthor Solutions Incorporated (ASI) claim to represent authors, but 170,000 (“or more”) of them are cited in a class action lawsuit against the company.

The lawsuit, filed on February 26,  claims to be  “a case about a publishing company that makes money from authors, not for them” and that ASI “operates more like a telemarketing company, not a publisher, that employs a large, commissioned sales force to sell books and services to its target audience: the Authors themselves, not the general public.” (My italics.)

Amongst other things, the suit alleges that ASI:

  • Deceptively sells publishing packages and other services by making false, untrue, or misleading statements.
  • Conceals critical information from authors — in particular that its “consultants” are actually telemarketers who don’t necessarily have any experience in publishing.
  • Lies about being “invested in Authors’ success”.
  • The company’s so-called ‘services’ “are not reasonably designed to help authors sell books or to accomplish their stated goal and are effectively worthless.”

Back in June last year, David Gaughran, writing in his Let’s Get Digital blog began his opening salvo against the company like this:

The more you study an operation like Author Solutions, the more it resembles a two-bit internet scam, except on a colossal scale.

In another posting, Gaughran described ASI as:

a company infamous for overcharging writers, doing a terrible job of publishing their books, and forcing ineffective and expensive marketing services upon those authors when their books (inevitably) fail to sell.

Needless to say, Author Solutions is no solution for an indie publisher. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about the company is their parentage. According to a banner on their website, ASI is “A Penguin Random House Company”:

 

"A Penguin Random House Company"

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