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.