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.