20 May

5 things that I expect (or at least hope) will change in publishing

As a hybrid author I’ve often expressed my fears of Amazon and its use of its large size. I’ve encouraged people to sell eBooks direct on their site. I’ve lauded Kickstarter as a way to balance the eBook channels. It’s led some to claim I’m a print cheerleader, but I’m actually just interested in forward looking disaster mitigation.

That being said, watching the changes in publishing come down the pike, I do think there are a few things, well, actually five, that print publishing (or competitors popping up to replace it) will need to focus on to keep hybrid authors interested:

1. Monthly royalties

Publishing is set up on a six month system. It does this to simplify accounting, of course. There is also the fact that books take time to go out to bookstores and then come back. It takes time to sort out what all has happened. There is a lot of invested infrastructure aimed at catering to that system. It was how you made business for a hundred years, it’s not surprising.

However, monthly payouts are a big deal. For budgeting and planning, it is really, really helpful for writers to see more constant payouts.

Also, it’s tough to put in a ton of work in one month, and then never see the fruits of your labor for (at times) a year down the road.

Monthly payouts would help writers move from the famine/sudden-lump-system that swings this way and that.

I doubt publishers will move the print component over to this, but a parallel track of paying out your digital royalties makes sense, even if it involves work up front. If you want to keep your authors, it’ll have to happen because the alternative is just too interesting (half the reason many hybrid authors are attracted to digital direct sales via Amazon KDP/Nook Press/iTunes Bookstore is monthly compensation for monthly activity. We also live in a world where Kickstarter pays out the same month it funds. Our expectations may not be fair, but they’re there now, for better or worse).

Also, digital royalties have no reserve against returns (the returns system is a system where in books are given to bookstores at a credit, and are returnable. You can imagine the accounting headache) so the money doesn’t need to be held in case bookstores suddenly return a tranche of unsold books. The money is there.

2. Stepped digital royalties

In my contracts for paper, on hardcover, they stipulate if I sell X number of hardcovers I get a certain rate. After I sell X, the percentage goes up (because the house has recouped investment, and we’re sharing more of the royalties). Some step clauses can get pretty high and be very lucrative, the idea being that after expenses are recouped everyone can enjoy a good deal.

Sadly, legal and administrative people in large corporate publishing companies have decided to fight that for digital royalties and only a few high profile authors are getting steps in their digital clauses.

This is one, however, that will be fought. Why? I recently have seen some contracts going to authors that specify that the publisher gets to keep the book as long as it sells a few hundred digital copies every six months (which is easy to do, drop the price temporarily to 99 cents, sell your few hundred, then pull the price back up and you own the author’s rights for another few years of the contracted period). That means some people who are selling books, if the company is un-ethical, are entering into a very long term relationship indeed (if you assume the worst, which is never a bad thing, it could be for life). So what is the value of your digital rights over a lifetime?

If hardcover rights can be stepped, why not digital?

If the publisher has figured out how many books equal recouping costs, and steps the clause after that, contracts will look a lot fairer.

3. Sharing data

When Amazon announced that they’d be sharing BookScan data I saw a lot of publishing insiders I know and love shaking their heads and saying ‘that’ll drive authors crazy.’

Trust me, I know authors are crazy. I’m one. And I know a lot of them. We can be neurotic, twitchy, and overly imaginative. Creatives aren’t encouraged by society to be business-oriented.

But we writers are running small businesses. When the creative cap is off, the business needs to come on. And part of the reason writers are a pain in the ass on the publisher side is that we’re actually coming in ignorant, in the dark, worried about validation, and very very nervous.

As a result, we’re fire walled off so that we don’t cause too much damage.

Boy do I understand the impulse. I’ve seen some spectacular author idiocies in my time. I know how wearying it would be on the other side to deal with neurotics asking questions all the time.

But, part of that is the opaqueness of a process that isn’t made transparent.

Share the data, and the process openly, provide FAQs and upfront information about the hows and whys, and I’m betting you’ll have a less neurotic author.

We didn’t all fall apart when we got free access via Amazon to our Bookscan results. A lot of questions were asked up front, but over time wisdom was imparted, and know there are more knowledgable authors. We’d traded up obsessing about Amazon ranks for obsessing about Bookscan results (we’re going to obsess about something, it might as well be real figures).

This is helpful because it allows authors to see the impact of various efforts to promote books (if at all). If things are successful, both being rewarded faster (monthly payouts) and seeing the data confirm it, more authors will be able to tweak their outreach strategies as well. This benefits everyone. The upside is that it can show authors what works and what doesn’t (they won’t have to take someone’s word for it) and might allow some authors to figure out some stuff that maybe wasn’t obvious to anyone else.

Addendum: the genesis for this point came from the fact that Random House has done this for their authors, and the system is pretty cool (not all the way there yet, but certainly useful!).

4. Different out of print clauses

I’ve seen contracts recently that define out of print as something like the following: if the book has been out a few years, and sells less than $100 worth of royalties for the author in all types (print and digital), for a few publishing periods (each period being that 6 month stretch publishing works on), then the author can ping the publisher, and the publisher has X amount of time to try and raise sales.

As far as I can tell, this is one of the more troubling developments in the last two to three years in ‘traditional’ publishing. While self publish-only people talk about other things, this should be the item they laser in on. Because what this allows is a situation where authors are basically giving their intellectual property to a company forever.

In the past, once the book ‘went out of print,’ a clause like this worked and was fair to both parties. If the book stopped selling, and the print versions all faded away, this clause meant that after a year of it not selling the writer could ask for the rights back. The publisher could take a look at the title, decide whether to invest in a new printing (a not insignificant burst of activity and money), or whether to let it go.

But with the new reality, it’s hella easy for the publisher to print on demand enough copies to keep the book out there. It’s even easier for it to drop the price on the book to 99 cents for a temporary sale. That juices the copies sold up to the minimum, they keep the rights. I sell my own ebooks direct, so I can see how easy it would be to do this.

Have I seen this happening? No, right now publishers seem to be dropping projects back to authors when they realize things aren’t working out.

But the fact that lawyers are working so damn hard to put this in there is chilling as hell. It’s not happening that publishing companies are squatting on IP, as far as I can tell in my own experience, but with these new contracts the *mechanism* is there.

I expect to see agents fighting to increase that minimum way up, or putting in a clause that says firesales on the intellectual property negate the X dollars in royalties per period out of print clause.

Alternatively, I admire that in Europe there are time term limits placed on the agreement, to allow the author to get out after five or seven years. American contracts really need that.

I’ve already had one hybrid author express to me a desire to stop selling paper rights in the US as a result of this clause and to begin by selling their work internationally only in print, and handle the ebook themselves in the US.

5. Better project management integration

Cory Doctorow wings this point in a recent article:

Many of these publishers are separate divisions of the same company, but one thing that is abundantly clear is that none of the different departments are coordinating with one another. Most contemporary sales, marketing, and PR organizations outside of publishing use some kind of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software to coordinate their activities. Fundamentally, these are just databases that record all the different interactions that the company has with the people with whom it does business.

That being said, I don’t think Cory goes far enough. He’s focused on the publicity side, I think an entire system that lets anyone in publishing assigned to that book check in on a book’s project management status would be killer.

Think of a system that holds not just the PR stuff Cory is talking about, but information about the book as it’s being developed so that we solve some of the neurotic author issues. A place where the book as it exists can be read by publishing people in house to get excited about it. Where editorial, art, marketing and sales have appended comments to the cover that the author can see (oh, that’s why they’re changing this, or like this, or hate this). Yes, it’s annoying to have other people in and commenting, but with designated project leaders, it’s okay. It’s done in other orbs. The book’s details (expected pub date, author turn in date) are all on there.

As the book is being developed, there’s one central location for author to add ‘don’t forget reviewer X’ and email updates that flag everyone assigned to the book.

Yeah, hi publishing experts, I know it’s a naive thing to expect existing infrastructure to do these things because the existing systems already move along a path of their own. But someone will design it, and it will be a major feature for attracting authors away.

Addendum: for a glimpse of how some groups are doing this now, take a look at Booktrope.

Besides, this was 5 things I expect (hope) will change, not 5 things I know will change!

Interestingly, pieces of each of these 5 things are things that I’m seeing independently start to form up at smaller publishing venues (two of the contractual issues I’ve spotted have been addressed by some smaller publishers, so while not widespread, I find it intriguing that some nimble minds are seeing it as a way to attract authors. We can’t offer you money, but we can offer you fair contracts/monthly payouts, or digital royalties that escalate once we’ve recovered our losses).

Addendum: By the way, point #2, if adopted, probably solves #4, it occurs to me…