I love reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s business blogs about the publishing business, and her latest is no exception (Source: Business Musings: Poor Poor Pitiful Me Is Not A Business Model – Kristine Kathryn Rusch). In fact, her latest two pieces are about the same thing — a recent Author’s Guild open letter of lament about the state of publishing, and how their rights are being unfairly trampled by big publishing.
I spend too much time reading policy briefs at work though because I want to take her arguments, condense them into a tight little memo to the universe, and go even further. For me, I’d pitch it even stronger.
- Publishing is a business — Not just a cliche, but that publishing starts with a business contract between two business entities. On the one side, you have the supplier — the author who has created a great work, and now wishes to make money from it. And on the other, a small number of publishers who have lots of small suppliers they make deals with for product. This is not a partnership between today’s special snowflake and an evil empire, it’s two business partners coming to a deal.
- Fear is frequently a factor — since there are lots of potential suppliers, and only a few get to sell to the demanders, it becomes a buyer’s market. And since the suppliers want to sell, and that’s the only market they want to sell to, they often are afraid to ask for what they really want and instead accept what they are offered. They fear that if they negotiate too hard, the demanders will no longer demand their product, they’ll choose another supplier, and they’ll be left with nothing.
- Reliance on others is rampant — many of the suppliers use agents, and agents make money when a deal goes through. So since they represent you and not the other suppliers, they want THIS deal to go through at all costs — because if no deal is in place, they don’t get paid either. Even if it isn’t the best deal for you, they want it to pass. So they have a conflict of interest — trying to get you what you want and risking no revenue for them, or putting a deal in place and everyone gets something. Yet authors rely on these people for advice and guidance, without realizing the conflict or their respective needs and desires.
- Publishers want to make money — they do that by keeping as much as they can of whatever money they bring in from sales, and spending as little of it as possible on expenses.
That’s the perceived model that has generally driven the publishing business for many years. Publishers with most of the power, offering contract terms more favorable to them than to the hungry supplier, signing them up, and then the authors actually thank them for the one-sided contracts.
Kristine points out that this “perceived model” only exists if you let it exist, i.e. many authors have said “No, I’m negotiating, we’re in a business arrangement, and I don’t sign if I’m not getting what I want”, and the publishers said “Okay, here you go.” They didn’t OFFER it to them out of the gate, the author/supplier had to negotiate more favorable terms. But when they did, frequently they got closer to what they actually wanted. Of course, it doesn’t always work. Sometimes you overplay your hand and you get bupkis. Or they say, “Great, here you go.” But you get nothing more than what they offer if you never ask for more and negotiate.
Tied to this though are three things that I often think pundits should hammer home far more bluntly.
First and foremost, the times are a’changing and the power structure has rebalanced itself. Because the old model of “we’re the only game in town” has gone the way of the manual typewriter. If the author wants X, and the publisher says no, the author used to have to decide to walk away with nothing or give in. Now, the author has another viable option to self-publish themselves with Amazon or similar options. While Kristine talks in detail about it, I think more people should be emphasizing not that it is an alternative vehicle but rather that it means there’s a shift in power back to the supplier, making negotiating positions stronger. Yet many of the suppliers are still not exercising that new power.
Secondly, I hate the notion / concept of many authors that they are “selling books” or “how many books they sold”, and even in many respects, the concept of royalties at all. Authors do not, in fact, ever sell a book unless it was written on contract. Instead, they sell licensing rights to a book to a publisher who then takes those rights, publishes a version of the book, sells it, and gives a commission back to the author. Yet a bunch of the Author’s Guild rhetoric, some groups in Canada, and many of the anti-99 cent world (including Dean, her husband, in some respects) think that selling a book below a certain price point is devaluing the book. The book actually has no value, or equally, is priceless. ($0 or infinity) What they’re actually selling is a licensed copy of a book, and “licensing” isn’t about how much you get for a single license but about how much you make from overall licensing (hence the argument of Eisler, Konrath, etc. about the total value of the endeavour, not the individual price point). It might get people out of thinking price points says anything about the worth of the book, as opposed to is just a temporary accounting metric to help calculate overall profit/revenue. My favorite one is to compare it to a special coffee being $5+ and the book is worth way more than a coffee. But coffees are the original product — once consumed, forever gone. By contrast, the original BOOK was worth infinite dollars, what is being sold is a licensed copy of the original. And that isn’t worth anything unless someone buys it (caveat lector).
Finally, since authors SELL licensing rights, and publishers BUY licensing rights from them, authors are an expense. The money coming in from the publisher is revenue. How does the business make a profit? By reducing expenses and maximizing revenues. In fact, on a business sheet and income statement, joe author is not only an expense, they’re also a liability. Not an asset, not revenue.
I think where people misunderstand Kristine is when they paint her with the same brush as the self-pubbers who rant against the establishment. That isn’t Kristine’s message — her message is “it’s a business, treat it like one.”
One piece of advice out there is to think like you are your own agent — would you ever tell a client (yourself) to sign something without negotiating the terms when there are other avenues to explore? Equally, her argument is to go with what makes sense for YOU and gets you what YOU want — publisher, no publisher, self-pub, no pub, whatever floats your boat. It’s your career.
And one of the reasons it resonates with me is that the publisher world of agents and negotiations and haggling holds zero interest for me. I don’t want to do it, and I won’t do it. Not that I can’t but that I won’t…same reason I decided not to become a lawyer. I’m not doing it to make a living, I have other avenues for that, and I won’t put myself in the situation where I *have* to enter that old model world to make a living. Life’s too short for those kinds of experiences. I’ve done international negotiations at the UN, I’m even kind of good at them at times. But I really don’t enjoy it, and I think there are costs that go with it that I’m not willing to pay. As a result, I might end up doing more things myself. But that’s my choice, based on an understanding of the other world. Cuz that’s the real publishing model…a business.