By Guest Blogger, Peter Rubie, CEO of Fine Print Literary Management
Most people reading this essay are no doubt aware of how Google and others are trying to make the world’s literature a digital download away. It’s sobering to consider that the collective written knowledge of western civilization is rapidly heading towards the point where it will not only be accessible at the click of a mouse – it can be deleted with similar ease. Which is why Amazon’s recent spat with Macmillan (the parent publisher of Henry Holt, Farrar Straus & Giroux, St Martin’s Press, Tor and Picador among other imprints) over e-book pricing should sound a warning bell about why the fate of the publishing industry is so important. Are we listening?
If you tried to shop at Amazon, or own a Kindle, for example, you are likely already aware that Amazon arbitrarily barred you from buying Macmillan Group books during this spat, and worse, equally arbitrarily removed some Macmillan books from your Kindle. Without asking. And it’s the second time they’ve done something like this in less than a year.
There are three profound changes sweeping through the publishing industry as the real math of publishing evolves, and no one seems to be talking about two of them explicitly. So here goes:
The first change is one you may have read something about. That is the threat to an author’s paycheck from publishers themselves as e-books become more popular. The one industry that is cited most often as the “look out behind you” model is the music industry. But comparisons between book publishing and the music industry are superficial. For a start, pretty much from its inception the music industry has gone out of its way to screw the artists whose work they put out unless the artist became big enough to bully their way into getting a better deal. Little wonder then, that the advent of the digital music file is returning the music industry to the cottage industry it used to be before the advent of long playing records, when the 78 rpm record and its predecessor the printed sheet of music, are comparable to the single track mp3 file that most music lovers are now gravitating to.
Publishing on the other hand, has always looked after its artists with much greater love and responsibility. The problems in publishing for authors come mainly from inefficiencies and incompetence, brought about mainly by the mashing together of many small businesses into global companies. These corporations try, but can barely keep a handle on what they are currently producing, let alone keep track of the details of the 20 year old inventory of publisher x they acquired 10 years ago, especially if they fired all the staff from that company who might have had first-hand knowledge of that inventory.
The second change, following on from this, concerns the publishing industry’s enormous confusion and dismay at how to embrace its evolution from 19th century factories, creating and selling literature in concrete ink on paper formats, into 21st century repositories of literature where books will be ephemerally digital and accessible in a variety of ways.
In the factory model, the physical back list of a publisher’s titles was its economic backbone. Nevertheless, once a book’s ability to sell waned the rights to that book were returned to the creator, often within 5 years of its publication. The author could then seek a new publisher, self publish, revise the book, or do what they would with their book. Nowadays, publishers believe that digitization gives them carte blanche to own the license on that book forever, regardless of how many copies that book continues to sell.
They argue, in effect, that in the digital age, a license to publish gives them the rights to an author’s book in perpetuity, and authors should be grateful for this. They conveniently ignore that claiming a book is still “in print” when the only version available is a digital one can cripple an author’s sales record and ultimately their career. (“I’m sorry,” agents hear all the time, “I’d love to publish this writer but his books don’t sell.”)
The third change reshaping the industry is the evolving nature of booksellers, a group who has remained remarkably silent during current discussions on e-publishing. Whether that’s through deliberate choice, or shell shock at the speed technology is apparently making them redundant is hard to tell. But booksellers are going to have to completely re-conceive themselves. Up to now, they have been opinionated retailers, hand selling books as if they are beloved cans of soup. (“I can highly recommend THAT brand of pea soup, eaten it myself and thoroughly enjoyed it.”)
Booksellers must embrace the fact that they are becoming more service industry than retailer. The most obvious sign of this evolution is Macmillan’s decision to start selling e-books on what is being called the “Agency model.” (This was the root of the spat with Amazon.) This arcane term means, in effect, that in the broadest of math instead of a bookstore paying Random House $14 for a $25 book, and pocketing the $11 difference as profit, they will act as agents for the publisher selling a $25 e-book for a 30% commission, making approx., $7.50 on the sale.
If publishers start trying to bully authors out of a fair share of the earnings from digital books because they are clinging to outmoded 19th century business models and quietly panicking as a result, or because their corporate masters see taking advantage of an author as an easy way to bolster their bottom line as the back list loses some of its value, then authors are inevitably going to start acting like musicians. They will rebel and start their own companies and this will be publishing’s loss in more ways than just financial.
Despite all the “indie” flavored “publish it yourself” articles to the contrary, the majority of authors need the imprimatur and professionalism that publishers bring to the process, as much as publishers need the talent and professionalism of that rarest of creatures, the writer of good fiction.
So for everyone’s sake, stop pleading poverty to writers, it’s a bit like the old Yiddish joke about the kid who kills his parents, then pleads for leniency on the grounds that he’s an orphan. Once the costs of the e-book have earned out, share the profits fairly with authors and move an author’s royalty share to at least 50/50. Not to do so will inevitably mean that publishers will help establish an author only to lose him or her to that author’s indie publishing company. And then where will we be?
Peter Rubie is a published author and former editor, who is currently the CEO of FinePrint Literary Management, a literary agency based in New York City.