Another Nail in the Coffin

by Amanda S. Green

I’m a little late posting this morning and I apologize.  I’d really planned on putting up an open thread today, but a couple of articles caught my eye during the wee hours of the morning as I was trying to convince the scaredy dog (yes, that is a word and the nicest I could call the drooler at the time) that we weren’t about to be tossed into the air only to land in Oz.  In other words, the big, bad dog is scared of rain and kept the household up during the night because we had storms.

Any way, a couple of articles caught my eye.  One has been in the news for a week or so.  There have been the typical knee-jerk reaction from the legacy publishers and those who still believe they are the only hope for the publishing industry.  Another has been sort of ignored because it doesn’t deal with Amazon even though it is yet another example of how some agents are potentially getting into a conflict of interest, or at least a very grey and murky area of fiduciary duty to their clients.

But the Amazon story first.  On the 16th of this month, the New York Times published an article about Amazon bypassing publishers and signing authors to contracts to publish through Amazon.  For some months now, Amazon has been introducing “imprints”.  Several well-known authors signed exclusive publishing contracts with Amazon.  There were a few ripples when that happened, but nothing like the response to the Times’ article last week.  The specifics are pretty simple.  This fall, Amazon will publish 122 titles.  These titles will be across a variety of genres and some will be digital and some hard copy.  Among the authors will be self-help guru Tim Ferrias and actor/director Penny Marshall.And the cries of foul were heard far and wide from legacy publishers.

According to the Times, “Publishers say Amazon is aggressively wooing some of their top authors. And the company is gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide.”

So let’s look at that statement.  While I can’t speak to whether or not Amazon is “aggressively wooing” top authors, it would be a fool not to.  The same publishers who are crying foul are the ones who backed the agency pricing plan for e-books.  This is the plan that lets the publishers set the price for their e-books so there is no competition across the different e-book retailers.  Worse, the general reading public doesn’t understand that Amazon can’t control the prices for those books from the agency model publishers, and it is the one on the receiving end of the bad customer feelings.

But more telling is that these same publishers are crying because Amazon is “gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide.”  Used to provide is the key phrase here.  Past tense.  As in, these are services that were once provided by publishers, critics and agents and are no longer.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  And, frankly, can you blame an author for signing with Amazon if it does offer the editing, copy editing and proofreading, promotion and placement legacy publishers used to and no longer do?  I can’t.

I also think it’s rather disingenuous to have an agent, who also happens to be a publisher, complaining about Amazon taking money out of the hands of agents.  What about putting money into the hands of writers, especially when so many agents these days are either turning into publishers themselves (which brings up the question of just how hard they are going to work to place their clients’ work with another publisher when the agency could be the publisher)?  I’ll be honest, those who are crying “foul” the loudest are those who have enjoyed telling the writer to bend over and cough, forgetting that, without the writer, they wouldn’t have a business.

Read the article and let me know what you think.

Then there’s the second article, which sort of falls in with my last set of comments.  The Perseus Books Group has announced a new venture to “help” authors who want to self-publish.  The catch:  these authors have to be represented by certain agents who have signed agreements with Perseus.  So, that’s how some agents are getting around the somewhat murky ethical issue of literary agents also being publishers.  They don’t.  They just sign agreements with companies like Perseus to “publish” and “distribute” the books.

The article notes that one of the “benefits” of doing it this way is the breakdown of authors getting 70% while Perseus will only get 30%.  Guess what, boys and girls, an author can get that from Amazon now by self-publishing through them.  More than that, any author is capable of putting their e-books into the outlets mentioned in the article.  Even if the author doesn’t have the required Mac computer for iBooks/iTunes, it can be easily done through Smashwords.  Again, quick and easy and without the middleman.

But there’s more.  At least I have more concerns.  Question one, if Author A is represented by one of the agencies that has an agreement with Perseus, does Author A owe a commission to Agent B if he goes through Perseus?  Question two, if so, how does the agency build the proverbial Chinese wall (no insult intended here.  It’s a phrase learned in law school.) to make sure there is no undue pressure put on the author/client to go this route instead of the traditional publishing route?  Conversely, what sort of pressure would the agent put on Author A if the author came to him and said he wanted to self-publish and Agent B really wants to take the book through the traditional route?

I know legacy publishers and agents are scared about where the industry is going.  Or they should be.  Heck, anyone in the business, including authors, should be at least a little scared.  But it really is those who have made their livelihoods on the backs of authors who are the most scared and who are doing their best to find new and imaginative ways to maintain the status quo.  My advice, whether you are shopping a book around right now or thinking about doing so in the near future, decide what route is best for you.  Most of all, if you are offered a contract by either an agent or a legacy publisher, hie thee to an intellectual property attorney forthwith.  Do NOT sign it without first having someone very familiar with the industry looking it over first.  And please, note I said legacy publisher AND agent.

(Cross-posted to Naked Truth and here)

13 Comments

Filed under publishing, writing

13 responses to “Another Nail in the Coffin

  1. kali

    When I saw that first article, and read the cries of anguish it contained, I thought, good riddance, you deserved it for the restraint of trade called agency pricing.

    Still, I can’t help but think it will end up screwing the indie writer as well–when the bookseller becomes a publisher, it’s as great a conflict of interest as an agent becoming publisher. Who will trust the reviews? The reader lists? The links to “People also bought this” ?

  2. Kali, you hit on one of my main reasons for cheering. The agency pricing “fix” — and, whether people want to admit it or not, Apple had a big hand in it — did leave a very sour taste in my mouth. Not only because it was another confirmation that legacy publishers don’t look at e-books as “real” books, but also because it is a restraint of trade. And, considering they are still trying to tell us it costs as much to produce an e-book — for a title they have already produced a hard copy on — means they really don’t think we, the consumer, can think and figure out just how much they are screwing us. Much less how much they are screwing the writer.

    As for your concern about what this will mean for the indie, I’m not sure. A lot of buyers already question the reviews left on sites like Amazon. All you have to do is check some of the forum topics about sock puppets to see that. But it is, like so many other things in the industry right now, something we will have to watch and weigh. Of course, if it does force indies to make sure they put out not only a well-written but also a well edited and well formatted title, more the better, in my opinion.

    • kali

      “A lot of buyers already question the reviews left on sites like Amazon”

      Well, I *was* wondering how to get a review from Harriet Klausner, but I guess I’ll pass now :)

      • LOL. Actually her reviews do give a bit about the book and why she likes it. And, believe it or not, I have seen her give a negative review or two, relatively speaking. No, I’m talking about those reviews that are written by the author, the author’s better half, etc. There was a thread on the kindle boards not too long about about exactly that. Then, the author not only admitted to writing two reviews about one of her titles, but didn’t see why there was a problem with the author writing her own review.

  3. *facepalm* Top authors? Penny marshall is a top author? since when? That being said The big boys shot themselves in the testes a long while back and frankly I really don’t give a damn what happens to those idiots. Especially since Penguins child berkley is dealing with at least one author I know of, in what I’d have to consider poor faith. Besides which..there is very little that I read anymore NEW that isn’t published by Baen. *shrug* They print stuff I like. So does another ‘smaller’ house The Black Library…I love the Warhammer books. Back to penguin for a minute..come to think on it…I never heard back from either the editor of my author..or the head of Berkley..who I wrote a couple of VERY scathing letters to. I’m just a tad disappointed in the idiots. I almost hope they do go the way of the dodo birds. If Penguin or at least several of it’s subhouses die a lingering and very public death it might put the other biggest publishing house and all the rest of them on notice to stop screwing around. I doubt it though…they’re too arrogant.

    • Sean, gotta say I agree with you. But we don’t want it to be a long and lingering death because that will tie up the rights to the book you’re talking about. That said, I think we will soon be seeing more of the imprints being discontinued and at least one or two of the larger houses actually folding. This will happen sooner, rather than later, if some of the law suits I’m hearing about over their “creative” royalty reporting actually come to fruition.

      • Ric Locke

        What would be *really* interesting, in the apocryphal Chinese sense, would be if the “creative reporting” lawsuits succeeded for authors — then got back-constructed into the music and film businesses where the practices originated. Talk about scurrying cockroaches!

      • True,…it would slow up the reversion of rights. okay quick then..just so long as it’s frickin painful.

  4. Having read the article on ‘Perseus’ (or purse-yes?), I note the 70:30 split is being compared to the 25:75 split (which is of net) — ie, I conclude that is a split of NET, not gross. So to run the real numbers. If Perseus places it on Amazon, thereby deriving a 70% of gross return, and the agency takes 15%, the author ends up with 41% of gross. To put this in context it’s a lot better than the shade under 15% the author gets otherwise. For the agency however it is made of win too – they got 2.65% of gross from the traditional sale, and 7.35% of gross in this arrangement — for far less work.

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