Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Writers groups call on publishers to offer fair contracts

by Rob - January 8th, 2016.
Filed under: Publishing.

The Authors Guild (US), Society of Authors (UK), and The Writers’ Union of Canada, among other groups, have all just written to traditional publisher demanding fairer, more-modern contract terms. I was asked on Facebook if these initiatives were likely to get any traction. Here’s my response:

Honestly? I think traditional publishers will continue to dig in their heels — and die. When their top authors start leaving for direct engagement with their audiences — and they will since people like Scott Turow (past president of the Authors Guild in the US) and Philip Pullman (current president of the Society of Authors in the UK) are the ones behind these fair-contract initiatives — that will leave traditional publishing with no perceived quality advantage in the mind of the reading public over self-publishing.

Traditional publishers have kept for themselves every single dollar — every one — that new production methods have saved them. Typesetting from authors’ disks instead of manually rekeyboarding? They kept all that money. Economies of shorter print runs? They kept all that money.

For newer distribution methods, they’ve insisted on the lion’s share, offering just 17.5% ebook royalties (25% of 70%) vs. Amazon / Kobo / iBooks offering 70% of ebook royalties for self-publishing. They’ve become more aggressive about trying to take control of valuable rights such as digitial audiobooks. I can’t think of a single bone — again, not one — traditional publishers have thrown to authors in the past decade.

And they’ve been rapacious about holding on to rights, trying to spin the mere hypothetical existence of print-on-demand copies or the mere availability of ebook editions as being “in print” (and then in many cases producing atrocious bad-photocopy-quality print-on-demand editions and typo-ridden OCR-scanned ebook editions of backlist that they quite literally should be ashamed to have their publishing imprints associated with), paying out zero, or ten, or maybe if you’re lucky a few hundred dollars twice a year to keep control of older titles the author could be profitably selling (at reasonable ebook prices, something traditional publishers are incapable of grasping) for thousands.

Meanwhile, while authors are feeling ripped off — and experienced ones are — publishers (Tor, for example) have gone on record claiming that 2014 (the last year we have data for so far) was their best year financially ever. I mean really.

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2 Responses to Writers groups call on publishers to offer fair contracts

  1. I hadn’t realized that all of the profits from modern advancements were kept by the publisher, but it doesn’t surprise me.

    Although many are moving into self-publishing, I’m wondering if the next big sea change will be to author collectives. There is still benefit in working in groups and coordinating efforts – playing to each other’s strengths, getting better rates by hiring editors, artists, etc. for multiple projects at once, marketing all of their works together to cut costs, etc.

    Get small groups of half dozen authors in the same genre pooling resources and paying a far smaller percentage to hire just a couple people to handle the business side. Having multiple authors increases stability so bookstores feel less risk, as well. Basically becoming a small publisher but driven by the authors rather than editors and accountants.

    More I think about it, I’m actually kinda surprised it hasn’t already started.

  2. So, so, right.

    When China MiĆ©ville’s new _novella_ was offered for ‘pre-order’ last summer at, iirc, CAD$18, I seriously considered a campaign to “pirate the book, and send MiĆ©ville $5”. It couldn’t be less than he was getting, and it would cut the real pirates out of the loop.

    Yes, authors need people to handle the business end. There are, of course, authors who can do it themselves, but every minute they spend handling the business is time they could be writing! Nobody wants that :-) So, your solution is THE solution. And who do you know who isn’t a writer, isn’t part of the trad publishing houses, and is already on YOUR payroll (out of the pittance of your earnings that the publishing houses let you have)? This is something that your agents should be pushing, as the fall of the publishing houses is going to be the end of agenting unless they reinvent themselves.

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