Making money – authors versus publishers

Two items of news popped up on my radar over the past couple of weeks.  Both illustrate, from different perspectives, the problems mainstream publishing is having trying to make money out of authors.  In one case, the publisher has essentially given up.  In the other, the publisher was trying to screw the author out of every red cent of revenue they could possibly get, ethics be damned.

First, MacMillan has thrown in the towel on its Pronoun publishing venture.  It bought Pronoun in 2016, clearly intending it as an entry-level tool for self-published authors that would help to “separate the wheat from the chaff“.  As Pronoun CEO Jeff Brody said at the time of the acquisition:

“Authors who want or need more support will be able to join additional paid tiers for a revenue share—or may have the opportunity to transition to a traditional publishing contract.”

In other words:  demonstrate to MacMillan that you can generate revenue for them, based on the quality of your writing and/or the fan base you can generate out of your own resources, and the company might – might – be willing to invest in you.  However, MacMillan would not help you to generate sales for yourself.  That was up to you.  If you succeeded, and they thought they could piggyback on your success, they might follow up – but that initiative was in their hands, not yours as an author.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course;  but more and more, that’s the way of the publishing marketplace.  Publishers are effectively saying to authors, “You bring your success and your fans to the table;  we’ll bring our resources.  If you haven’t got the first, we won’t offer you the second.”  Most aspiring authors can no longer expect to break into “traditional” publishing without first proving that they can succeed on their own.  (A few fortunate ones may catch the eye of an agent, as J. K. Rowling did with Christopher Little, and that agent might spend a great deal of time, money and energy shopping their book[s] to publishers;  but I think that’s going to be even more the exception to the rule than it was in the past.)

The inference from MacMillan’s abandonment of its Pronoun venture is that even with such a “sorting device”, there simply isn’t enough money to be made from independent publishing to make it worthwhile for a mainstream publisher to become actively involved.  Businesses are in business to make money.  If they can’t make money, they go out of business.  MacMillan saw Pronoun as offering two opportunities:  attracting high-selling indie authors, and gathering data to fuel its mainstream publishing empire.  Neither worked out.

Of course, the heady success of some self-publishing authors in the early days of the Kindle ecosystem has been less frequently seen in recent years. If Pronoun was anticipating partnerships with “indie bestsellers” as some of the best known outliers were known (Barbara Freethy, Bella Andre, Jasinda Wilder, Hugh Howey, Holly Ward, and others), it may have found that fewer of those high-earning chart-toppers were being generated in an increasingly competitive market.

Some in the industry have speculated that Pronoun’s value to Macmillan lay in data collection. Indeed, the company’s farewell note includes the line, “We believed that the power of data could be harnessed for smarter book publishing, leveling the playing field for indie authors.”

And Pronoun spokeswoman Allison Horton was quoted by Doppler last year saying an ambitious thing for a company about to be bought by a Big Five trade publisher: “Pronoun’s goal is to make indie publishing so successful that it becomes the predominant way great books are published.” That’s a vision that won’t be realized by the Pronoun platform, it turns out.

Yep.  No commercial advantage = no earnings = no more Pronoun.

One can at least acknowledge MacMillan’s attempt to break into the indie market by investing in it, albeit indirectly.  I think that was an honorable method.  Others, adopted (one fears) by more and more operators in the publishing industry, are less honorable.  As Kristine Kathryn Rusch points out, they include “rights grabs” that are right on the borderline of legal, let alone ethical.

The [draft contract] wanted my publisher’s signature as well, transferring all the money I earned on my books to the movie company. I had never seen that before (and I hope I never see it again).

And the document also asked for the copyright registration number.

. . .

You can cite an old copyright number when you apply for a new copyright on a different form of the same product. That links the two copyrights together, and might—maybe, depending—make some judge think that the new copyright (which belongs to the company) is valid because the company had the original number.

This company … is copyright squatting. And if they had gotten me to sign that horrid option, they would have more or less owned my intellectual property, and had a strong argument that I deserved nothing.

. . .

So for very little money up front, the company would have owned everything and, over the years, received money directly from my publisher, money that would initially have gone to me but which I would have stupidly signed away.

Am I appalled?

Not entirely. I expect most of this crap from Hollywood, at least on rights licensing. I’m seeing the same kind of rights licensing crap—taking everything and giving the writer nothing—from traditional publishing too, these days.

But the copyright squatting? Trying to actually steal a copyright by filing their own copyright and then disputing who owns the copyright in court?

Yeah, that appalls me.

I’m glad that I’m aware of it now. Because every time I think that major corporations can’t sink any lower, they find whole new depths to sink to.

The entire article is well worth your time to read.  I suspect that such sneakily camouflaged “rights grabs” will become commonplace over the next few years.

The timely reminder from both cases – Pronoun, and the attempted “copyright squatting” – is that an author’s value to a publisher or media company lies only in the money that can be made from their works.  There is and will be no loyalty or commitment offered by the latter except in return for the former – and any such loyalty or commitment will only remain valid as long as the latter keeps coming, or appears to be imminent.  Once the money is no longer in prospect, authors can and will be discarded like scrap paper, torn up and tossed into the trash can.

As indie authors, we have a measure of protection from that.  We may have less “security” (for what that’s worth) than traditionally published authors, but we at least know that our success (or otherwise) is totally up to us.  We can’t rely on anyone else to do it for us.  That clears the air.

21 thoughts on “Making money – authors versus publishers

  1. Read both articles previously. My take away is that control your works as much as possible. Learn how to publish, how to contract, and be leery of giving away your (copy)rights. Of course this means the learning curve will be rather steep…

  2. First cut, having not read the articles yet, is that this sounds like exactly what I would expect. The old model is dead. The new model is vampirism. You do all the work and the publisher takes all the money. Huffpo writ large, you write for the privilege of providing BigPub with free content.

    In an environment where the biggest book chain still standing is opening a restaurant, one can see that being a publisher is a losing proposition.

    What I find hilarious is the continued insistence on steering directly for the iceberg. Case in point, TOR. Here’s a review of a new author’s first book from them.

    The encapsulating comment of the review is: “Who writes a 500 page letter detailing whole lives and mooning about the attributes of their lover? The result was that I got bored about 1/3 of the way through and had a hard time finishing.”

    Based on my reading over the years, this type of thing is why B&N is going into the food biz. Publishers who insist on producing books that tick off all the SJW boxes and have pretty sentences in them, but otherwise suck.

          1. Not original to me though – I have to credit Bernadette D. And the thought isn’t original, either. Back in the mists of time, the publishers who ran Booklocker were adamantly against any authors agreeing to work for free under that arrangement. There are too damn many publishers of zines, websites, etc who offer that to the prospective writer looking to build up their resume by working their asses off for free.

      1. I think that’s what we’re writing for now. How much is K.A. Arsenault getting paid by TOR for the first novel with the pretty sentences that nobody will finish? Enough to cover the weeks and months it took to hit all those checkboxes and craft all the fancy wording? I bet the guy makes ten cents an hour if he’s lucky.

  3. Wildly off-topic (so feel free to delete it), but I thought it might be of interest. Audible is having a contest. Two to four minutes of a story; not necessarily the entire story. I read some random website for about 3.5 minutes. I got to around 600 words (560).

    1. That contest is a joke. You have to incorporate one of four writing prompts in your 2-4 minutes… and demonstrate potential for a multi-season audioplay series based on your scene.

      One scene.

      I didn’t want to say it, but I’ve been thinking lately that Audible has fallen under the control of the idiot side of Amazon.

    1. I just sent that one to Cameltoe Flotpatron. He’s pretending none of this is political today.

      1. Further to Flopatron, I felt compelled to do a post myself. He saves comments from his spam filter and creates new posts out of them, apparently. Then doesn’t allow comments on the new post. Amazingly childish behavior for a supposed adult.

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