Doing the dirty

As Sarah wrote yesterday, trad publishing is an industry built off doing the dirty to those they purport to serve. They are not alone in this: they are preceded (and eclipsed by) the music industry, the film industry (Hollywood accounting is more than just a metaphor), and of course the software gaming industry. And others, of course – these are just the most well-known ones.

All of these industries have one key thing in common: they are built around someone’s creative endeavors.

The someone can be a team of people working together, or a single person, but without creative folks bringing something new into the world, they would all die a slow and painful death. Yes, this applies to non-fiction as well. It also goes a fair way to explaining why Hollywood has become so completely bereft of anything resembling creativity.

When you run a business where the primary mode of operation amounts to shafting the people who create your content, you will burn out those who could produce the best content. Yes, there will be any number of second- and third- stringers, who will be good enough to give you the trickles of income that are being used while the industries churn through and burn out their sources. That’s without stopping to consider that such a business model is in and of itself evil.

A non-evil business model is one where the creator of the product, the customer, and the business owners all end up better off after business is concluded. One where a valuable service is provided for a reasonable price. Where the creator is reasonably rewarded for his/her/its efforts.

The kind of blatant fraud and criminal negligence that goes with ignoring requests for rights reversions, using contracts that sign away everything except (maybe) your firstborn and your soul, and then using accounting systems so archaic that you can’t say how many copies of the thing you printed much less sold… That’s evil. It’s treating your creators as interchangeable widgets (which is evil in itself, because no two humans are truly interchangeable, nor are people ever widgets) and then abusing them.

It’s destroying lives, the lives of the creators who are being so comprehensively shafted, and making life less pleasant for the rest of us. Imagine if you will a word where Terry Pratchett’s work was never published. Now ask yourself how many proto-Pratchetts have had their careers and potential aborted by this abomination masquerading as “business as usual”.

I don’t give a damn about the politics of the authors, the assorted publishing industry employees, or anything else, incidentally. What gets up my nose about all of this is that in the stampede to give off the politically correct auras and emanations, anything resembling competence has been thrown in the loo and unceremoniously flushed. I’m anti-incompetence, not pro anyone’s party line.

And yeah, I do take the view that this kind of deliberate incompetence is evil. We’re all human, no matter how debatable that might be with some of us. We have the ability to make our own decisions. To claim that someone’s circumstances “makes” them do something horrible is to insult everyone else with similar circumstances who chooses not to do horrible things.

I’d just like to know what the hell is wrong in this world that there are entire industries built on destroying people’s lives while telling everyone they’re all about fulfilling dreams.

55 thoughts on “Doing the dirty

  1. The very fact that good art of that sort is hard, takes a great deal of effort to perfect, means that even entry level efforts took a certain level of drive to reach that point.

    Which drive means that the driven are vulnerable to predators specializing in that target.

    Hollywood is gated by beauty, and acting skill, so predators drawn to the opportunity might be more heavily physical rapists, and demanding that victims pretend everything is fine, that they aren’t badly damaged by what was done. The very concentration of wealth, costs, and narrowing of opportunities makes the enterprise vulnerable to predatory capture, and that one looks like it has been captured from the beginning.

    I don’t know music and videogames. So maybe the predators attracted to the business side of the enterprise are only thieves of money.

    1. Music industry accounting is said to make Hollywood accounting look like a pack of amateurs. The promoters and “managers” of the music industry are… well… There’s not anything I can say about them that’s remotely polite. I don’t have numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are part of why so many ridiculously talented musicians have self-destructed.

      As for the videogame industry, every programmer and tester knows the horror stories. Soul-destroying is the _nice_ way to describe it.

      1. Writing that, I’d deleted a bunch of more specific speculations about publishing, when I came to suspect that I’d crossed a line.

        Rate of drug use among musicians is diagnostic of something. There’s only so far one can argue inherent defects of performing personalities, or that actors and actresses have always included an excess of deviants.

        Certainly, the long term stability of video game creative teams and businesses does not seem diagnostic of happy functioning. But I know so little that what I see might be comparable with other issues of software industries. Forex, maybe the AAA games are hitting some sort of complexity limit for project scope.

        On the other hand, what I heard of the programming occupation in highschool was one reason I decided I did not want to spend time really learning the skill. *mumble* years later, I found myself feeling that it was a decision I regretted.

        1. They’re really not hitting a complexity limit, they are just pushing out games on schedules that are pure fiction and pushing things out without getting them ready first, which results in artists often working 60 hour weeks. Happens on both AAA games and AAA VFX films.

            1. Just before I left CA, a friend that had been in the animation biz a few years longer than me had a heart attack and was told by his doc that he couldn’t take the stress anymore… so, sometimes, literally. And yeah, i have other examples.

        2. Creative occupations have always had a larger proportion of people with mental issues. (The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain by Alice Flaherty is quite interesting.)

          1. Oh, quite. It’s the way the creative industries seem to be set up to exacerbate the mental issues that disturbs me. “Bleed ’em dry then find some more victims” is not a business model I will ever support.

  2. Ah, but the publisher takes the rough raw clay produced by an author and lovingly crafts it into the masterpiece it was meant to be. The original writer is but a single cog in the process. I think this is what they truly believe, or at least what trad pub folks tell themselves so they can sleep at night while being fully aware that they take the lion’s share of a book’s profits.
    Once upon a time they had some slim reason for such an attitude. They had the resources to provide competent editors, decent artists for covers and illustrations, and the ability to create a national promotion and advertising package sufficient to appeal to a majority of readers. And above all else they and they alone had a lock on the means of production for hard paper copies and the distribution network that supplied every book store.
    And then their world turned upside down with the one two punch of e-books and Amazon. An indie author could either develop the skills to do their own editing and covers or buy those services by the yard then offering their finished works to the entire world for a profit of 70% of the sale price instead of a piddling 10-15% from trad pub, and get paid by the month instead of the next quarter or even much longer.
    Simple truth, the time of trad pub for the most part has come and gone. That particular dinosaur simply has not accepted that it’s dead yet, claiming that e-books are a passing fad while scamming the source of their product in order to continue to pay the rent on incredibly expensive New York offices while cheaping on those same services that once upon a time justified their existence.

    1. They know better – they are quite aware that their contribution to the author’s work is minimal, and that they truly don’t deserve the money and acclaim they have received.
      Hence, their fury. The anger – and the need to trivialize the writer’s part in the process – comes from their knowledge that they are unimportant. It sears their soul, and leads them to destroy the one who they hold responsible for that self-hatred.
      Think of innocent husbands destroyed by promiscuous wives – they unleash the gates of hell in their vengeance on him – how DARE he be in the right, and make them FEEL badly! It wouldn’t be enough to just leave. Oh, NO! They have to take EVERYTHING he values – money, home, children, reputation, sense of self-worth.
      Same dynamic going on there.

    2. More like a dead parrot, really. One that in life had a rather inflated sense of its own worth.

      Actually, that seems to be common in trad pub, the high opinion of oneself that does not come close to being justified by the facts.

    3. I’ve worked with two good, truly professional publishing editors. One I hired free-lance (Nassau “Nas” Hendron at and then the boss and readers at the academic press where I published my non-fiction work. They helped me improve, pointed out areas where I shone and where I needed to polish, and it was very much a partnership. I learned a great deal. They DID improve the work, and the cost was worth every penny. That’s not what happens with the Big 5 very much, if at all.

      1. Really good editors like that are worth their weight in gold. You’ve done well to find two of them.

    4. If the spirit moves me, I think I’ll share the amazing expert guidance I got from the house on the subject of Through Fire…. You’ve seen it….
      With a series of gifs.
      Then there is the contract clause that allows them to keep the IP forever, and the basis for the extortionate move. Oh, yeah. I also have a supposedly copyedited manuscript with “woke” comments in five different hands every few pages. And only half the manuscript.
      You know, I keep telling people I”m not nice, and they refuse to believe me.

      1. Do give us a warning so we can break out the popcorn and make sure we have no liquid in our mouths before we start reading.

  3. The irritating part is that they focus on screwing the author out of his share by bad faith and dirty tricks… but the amount they manage to get that way is trivial compared to what they leave on the table as far as failure to, you know, actually market and sell his work, which is what they claim their business is. And to add insult to injury, they claim they don’t know how many books they printed, how many were sold, or how much money they brought in, and do it with a straight face.

    They’re not chiselers. They don’t *want* the author’s money; it’s pretty obvious money isn’t what drives them. They screw with the authors because they’re dirtbags, and they can get away with it.

    1. Pretty much, yes. They’ve got their cozy little scam going, and they’re going to ride it into the mud.

    1. David Bowie got so screwed over in his early success (through Ziggy Stardust), that it took him years and lots of money to get the rights back to albums and songs that made millions.

    2. Hmmm … you know, I can see that scummy scenario being played out in the Literary Industrial establishment. Hamper the truly talented, original and interesting authors by locking up their books as a means of protecting and enhancing “the anointed,” who have been selected for the full-course ride.

  4. They know better – they are quite aware that their contribution to the author’s work is minimal, and that they truly don’t deserve the money and acclaim they have received.
    Hence, their fury. The anger – and the need to trivialize the writer’s part in the process – comes from their knowledge that they are unimportant. It sears their soul, and leads them to destroy the one who they hold responsible for that self-hatred.
    Think of innocent husbands destroyed by promiscuous wives – they unleash the gates of hell in their vengeance on him – how DARE he be in the right, and make them FEEL badly! It wouldn’t be enough to just leave. Oh, NO! They have to take EVERYTHING he values – money, home, children, reputation, sense of self-worth.
    Same dynamic going on there.

  5. I try to avoid buying anything from the traditional publishing bunch, about all I can do as a reader but the alternative seems to be Amazon. My worry is that I, and the folks I read, are simply changing masters.

    1. Understandably so, although Amazon is orders of magnitude more transparent than trad pub. I do wish there was more competition out there, but I lack the ability to build an alternative.

  6. — I’d just like to know what the hell is wrong in this world that there are entire industries built on destroying people’s lives while telling everyone they’re all about fulfilling dreams. —

    Inasmuch as evil is real, your question decomposes into two components:
    1) How do the evil who have compatible methods in mind find one another?
    2) Why don’t the mechanisms that deter (most) individual predators work to deter corporate predators?
    They’re two ripping good questions. Myself, I’m still working on figuring out sociopathy. (No, not because I want to try it myself.)

    1. 1) The sorting algorithm of bureaucracy.
      Pournelle’s Iron Law implies that it will be easier to rise in power within a bureaucracy by shafting your rivals than by exemplary performance.
      Someone willing, nay eager, to backstab co-workers who they must see every day, and from whom they might suffer at least social consequences, will show conspicuously less mercy to those they have unaccountable power over.
      2) Bureaucracies exist to limit personal accountability. Corporations exist to limit legal exposure and financial liability.
      Combine the two, and you’re a jigger of self-serving ambition away from toxic. And the Iron Law is that self-serving ambition will increase over time.

      1. Hm. You have something to think about there. Normally, persons who are overtly evil will gravitate to governmental positions. Perhaps the intermittently or marginally evil are disqualified from those positions by insufficient will-to-power, and so must seek harbor in the “second echelon” of evil: businesses that have adopted corruption as a profit-seeking method. There’s probably room to work the “SNAFU Principle” into this, too.

    2. a) They follow the supply of victims fitting the shared appetite.
      b) Because those mechanisms don’t deter individual predators. Practicing predators are pretty nearly by definition those that have a drive to predation that overcomes both deterrence and any tendency they might have had to learn preventative moral rules.

      Because it is strength of drive, compared to other factors, they will sacrifice other opportunities to learn skills that enable more reliable feeding of the appetite. One of these is cover scams. Which do three things. 1. Help identify people so gullible or so desperate that they can be preyed on easily. 2. Help identify those who can be somewhat trusted to enable the predation. 3. Conceal the activity from the interest of those who aren’t pliable enough to be victims or enablers.

      One tool to counter cover scams is asking which behaviors have a plausible explanation provided, that when examined closely and carefully does not actually explain or justify the behavior. Another hint is when a question or statement raises far more ire than than it really should.

      A predator can recognize when another predator is using the same sort of scam on a shared potential victim. Because they watch people carefully, paying attention to how fully their own cover scam is believed.

      Predatory appetites can be learned. Some people can be recruited from the enablers, and developed into knowing, willing, interested confederates.

      Some transactions are safe to do without knowing whether the other party is twisted up inside. These lead one to believe that all transactions are so safe. Publishing isn’t such a transaction.

      Publishing is also a transaction where you do not have significant detailed information about the personal history of the other parties. In absence of that information, you do not have as easy a way of judging the ways a person might be twisted up inside, or patterns of behavior. Which means you will be blindsided by someone who deals with some business partners fairly, and others unfairly.

  7. Objection: archaic accounting methods require items to be laboriously entered in by hand, and maintain a very clear paper trail of what goes where, and gets sold for how much, to who.
    More modern accounting methods don’t deviate from that, either. Unless there is an attempt to defraud. (Ah, the joys of the paperless office, where anything inconvenient is two clicks away from disappearing forever. Yes, I’ve witnessed it.)

  8. “I’d just like to know what the hell is wrong in this world that there are entire industries built on destroying people’s lives while telling everyone they’re all about fulfilling dreams.”

    Hell Kate, there are entire NATIONS built on that. Like China. The story of Western Civilization is the story of rejecting evil and trying to make everything fair for everybody. I say trying, because obviously there’s a long way to go yet, but as a culture we’re doing better than we used to.

    Unfortunately our enemies have latched onto that notion of fairness and they’ve been using it as a bat to beat us up for the last 100 years. I think the upheaval we see now is that shit-show finally drawing to a close.

    This is why, despite fashion and all the other pressures to “fit in”, I’m the guy who wrote a story where the corrupting nature of great power failed to work on the MC. Despite being able to do literally anything and throw his weight around if he likes, he tries instead to make the world better by doing as little as possible.

    Most authors seem to forget the responsibility side of Western culture. If you’re the bull and you wander into the china shop, its your responsibility to be careful with your tail. I think that’s a theme worth exploring.

    Big 5 obviously disagree, I haven’t seen much along those lines published in the last 10 years.

    Fortunately for me there’s a less-evil commercial outlet that will pay me for my work. Some of the details of the arrangement are very convenient for the company, but they don’t actively steal the money or my IP. So far, anyway.

    The reason of course is who owns the power. When the only printing press there is fills a building, you’re not at liberty to tell the owner to shove his crooked contract and go do it yourself. But if the printing press is a PC that sits on your desk and the warehouse is a hard drive, then you can.

    And we are.

    How long before the Big 5 are calling us, instead of us calling them? Hmm…

    1. There will always be people who are willing to write for a discount on “author copies” and recognition as a Real Published Writer. Part of the race to the bottom for authors is that the publishers can get more than they can print, for free. And even author name recognition is losing its value now that once some author name becomes marketable on its own right, the tendency is for them to become “house names”. Eventually some of the ghostwriters get recognition, but a lot of people bought novels by “Dick Francis” or “Clive Cussler” or “Janet Evanovich” which were written by someone else. (yes, Francis had serious health problems and “help” to meet his contract deadlines, but after half a dozen books, they finally owned up that Francis wasn’t much involved with things any more)

      There’s probably some publisher, right now, looking at old contracts and working a spreadsheet for their new JRR Tolkein books… and, frankly, most of their market wouldn’t *care* that Tolkein shuffled off this mortal coil almost half a century ago.

      1. I’m sure there is – I’m also sure the Tolkein estate would come after them rather viciously, since said estate has been quite active in protecting the man’s legacy.

        Of course, the estate is being run by his grandchildren, the last I heard. I wouldn’t count on the protection lasting much past that generation.

        1. Exactly. There’s not much juice left from reprints and movie rights now; cash in hand for licensing “new work” on granddad’s IP is a powerful incentive. Sooner or later they’ll take the money.

          Of course, the new saga would be thoroughly Woke, and there would be a quest to stop globular wormening, or something like that…

          1. Which would just be… ghastly.

            The LOTR movies are brilliant. The Hobbit movies are… adequate, mostly, with a selection of “Oh, FFS! Really?” moments scattered through them.

            The only other contender for a LOTR movie I’m aware of led to a series of absolutely ghastly orc puns before the first 1/2 hour had passed – and it was actually trying to do the right thing.

            I shudder to think what a Woke-type would do to the series.

            1. Well, supposedly Amazon is making a TV series, whose storyline is “Growing Up Aragorn”, covering the time referenced in the appendices of Return of the King covering the period between his mother’s death and his meeting with Gandalf just before Bree.

    2. Most people seem to forget that “To whom much is given, from him much will be expected.” has been sinking into western culture for many a century… and that many other places do not have a similar philosophy

      1. Sadly so. That was the original idea behind noblesse oblige: you have the (deity-given) power, you have the responsibility to use it properly.

        Properly implying not in a sinful manner which covered all sorts of things like dealing honestly, helping others to help themselves rather than acting in a way that would leave them permanently dependent on you, and a whole lot more.

        Of course, people being people, that wasn’t what happened a lot of the time.

  9. You’re not wrong: power and responsibility do go together. I don’t want any kind of power for the simple reason that I don’t want the responsibility that goes along with it. I’ve got enough issues just being responsible for myself, the Husband, and three cats (he’d say the same, being responsible for himself, me, and three cats).

    We, collectively, did ourselves a disservice when we started talking about rights and forgot to mention duties and responsibilities.

  10. Reading this, I’ve got it stuck in my head about “Bull Durham.” Which is my movie recommendation of the night, it is the single best sports movie ever made and worth watching.

    I think what the Big 5 and Hollywood offer is this dream. The dream that you’ve Made It. Think about it like this-even if nothing else you do matters, you can have the credit and and the dream.

    Kevin Cosner, when you give him damn good dialog, can just knock the cover off the ball. “Yeah, I was in the Show. I was in the Show for 21 days once. The twenty-one greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the Show? Somebody else carries your bags, it’s great. You hit white balls for batting practice. Ballparks are like cathedrals. The hotels all have room service. The women all have long legs and brains.”

    It’s the part of Making It. You’ve made it to the same breath as J.K. Rowling. You’re working the house that Stan Lee built. You’re on the same sound stages that they made The Empire Strikes Back. You’re walking out onto the field of the Oakland Colosseum and hearing the roar of the crowd. Doesn’t matter if that same breath is “almost as good as.” Doesn’t matter if the current owners of Marvel have let the house get infested with all kinds of vermin. Doesn’t matter that they’re probably using the same equipment as they did in 1980. Doesn’t matter if the stadium is only a quarter full, nobody on the team can hit anything worth shit, and you’re so far down in the race that the Cubs are doing better than you.

    You’ve Made it. You’ve reached this level of credit and credibility that everyone believes that someone as an artist should have.

    Anything less for artists is sneered at, sneered upon. You’re not a serious artist unless you’ve Made It. Doesn’t matter that the music industry is so over-processed that anything that comes out of there is like Velveeta but with less texture. Doesn’t matter that most books that come out from the Big 5 could be written better with a neural net AI and giving it the entire Sherlock Holmes bibliography. Doesn’t matter that I’d rather watch…well, I’d rather watch “Bull Durham” on DVD over anything on Netflix today.

    Me? I’m scared of publishing my first book indie-and I know I need to do it before 10/1 or I’m going to despise myself. I know that if I ever do a comic book, I’ll be getting a GoFundMe to get the initial capital and a Indie Go-Go for the major costs. I want to be in the house that Stan Lee built, or the house that Jim Baen built-because I damn well know I need a good editor to check some of my bad writing habits.

    But, it doesn’t matter. Just like being a damn good commercial artist doesn’t matter. I’ll be writing. As long as I make some money, it’s better than no money. I’d love to brag about buying my third Ferrari. I would, really. But, as long as I can get out there and hit balls and play the game, maybe one day going to the Show will matter. Until then, I’m in the game.

    1. Funny you should mention that. I don’t give a rat’s tookus about sports, or most sports movies, and I liked ‘Bull Durham’. Also ‘A League Of Their Own’, with Tom Hanks playing another ex-major-league burnout. SO many great lines, in both movies. Is it a coincidence that they’re both about 30 years old? Hollywood could DO that, but mostly they don’t bother any more.
      Cast Away: Only Tom Hanks could make two hours of talking to a volleyball great.

      1. It is sad. And I loved “A League of Their Own” in spite of being so desperately nonathletic that I spent a good bit of the 7th grade with a broken wrist doing admin stuff and bloody grateful for that.
        I hated gym class. I hated team sports. I hated it all, with a burning passion.
        There was a single gym class doing free exercise and yoga. That was OK.

      2. One of the great things about both Tom Hanks and Kevin Cosner’s characters? They’re romantics. They want to believe in the dream. They want to Make It, to be in The Show. Even where they are right now, which is nowhere…they want to be in the stars.

        It’s their aim that is off a bit…

        And, that they can’t quite reach is what makes them so sad and melancholic. Kevin’s character was just that little bit not good enough, the name right below the cut-off line. Tom’s character wasted what he had for five years.

        Hollywood can’t do that, because the men and women with souls and dreams have been replace by people that have saved the cat, made mad-lib stories and plots that are so formulaic that when break the formula, there’s a formula for that too.

        It’s all about the check boxes, the tick marks that will reach the right audiences and sell the most merchandise. It’s what let Kathleen Kennedy sell her version of Star Wars, because they thought all they had to do was put the name on the package and the fans would lap it up.

        It’s definitely not “okay, we have to put on a thirteen hour toy commercial. Let’s make it a f(YAY!)king good commercial.” Instead of a terrible coming-of-age story that should have had the creators institutionalized for their own safety.

  11. and then using accounting systems so archaic that you can’t say how many copies of the thing you printed much less sold

    I think you mean ‘esoteric’ there. An accounting system that was merely archaic would still be fully capable of tracking every sale, every penny, and every unsold book; it would simply be labor-intensive. In order to create an accounting system that CAN’T keep track of books and money, they had to work at it.
    Dark Willow: “Bored now.”

    1. The system needs to be confusing, esoteric, and tricky. It lets them hide so much.

      I would not be surprised, at all, if you were to assign an honest accounting team to a Hollywood studio, that there would be a whole lot of “suicide by a full revolver cylinder in the back of the head.” There are too many secrets buried in just those books alone. I know that when Sigorney Weaver threatened to bring in her own accountants for underpayment for a movie she was on (Ghostbusters II, I think), they payed her an incredible amount to shut her up.

      (If Trump really wants to crash Hollywood? Just go up to the podium and say that he’s going to get rid of all those odd tax exemptions and such for Hollywood. After all, keeping track of all of them has to be costing them far more money than they’re saving! Think of all the extra paperwork and everything that he’s going to be saving them for federal taxes alone!)

      1. Oh yeah. I’d love to see someone running for President on a campaign to eliminate ALL corporate taxes. Why? Because it would also eliminate all those odd exemptions various industries and megacorps have managed to build into the system and the worst of them would end up _losing_ money as a result.

        Unfortunately, I think anyone who tried would end up suffering an “unfortunate fatal accident” rather quickly.

          1. It would have to be some damn good leverage – honestly it would be so much more obvious if we were allowed to call the pols “the representative of GE” or “the representative of Microsoft” or whatever. At least everyone would know who held the purse strings.

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