Friday, July 10, 2015

Authors Guild Demands More

The Authors Guild recently announced the launch of its Fair Contract Initiative. Essentially this means they believe that publishers are getting fat on the backs of struggling writers, and that said publishers should share the wealth more fairly.

But what, exactly, is fair?

This week, the issue has to do with e-book royalties. The standard publishing contract offers a 25% royalty for e-books, but the Guild believes it should be much higher. After all, it costs nothing to produce an e-book, and nothing for shipping. Why can’t they pay more?

But here's the thing: the process for producing an e-book is exactly the same as any other. They're not free to produce, and they never were. 
Like any book, every e-book started out as a query to an acquisitions editor who fields hundreds of submissions each week. Who (if she liked it) then took it to a meeting of the pub board. After getting approvals from management, marketing, and fellow editors, she sent off a contract offer to the author (or agent). Then comes (potentially) a few weeks of negotiation. Then the contract is signed by the author, and countersigned by the publisher.
Also like every book, developmental editing follows. Then copy editing. Then (potentially) months of back-and-forth with the author to settle on a final manuscript. The marketing people make a plan. The book designer lays out the pages, and the art department crafts a cover. They solicit input from the author at various stages, who might or might not ask for extensive changes. Then they ship off a galley to the author for final approval. The author will win some battles, lose others. This process, end-to-end, could take several months or even a year.
This is where the real money goes, in the development of a book, any book.

Recently I had a conversation with an editor from HarperCollins, and she dropped a frightening stat on me: On average, her company invests about 2,000 man-hours on every book they release. That’s pre-press, before any expense for paper, ink, or FedEx. (To put this into perspective, suppose that you work 40 hours a week on your job and take off two weeks for vacation. You will work exactly 2,000 hours this year.)

Think of it this way: Publishers are like pharmaceutical companies. A single pill of that wonder drug might cost 5¢ to produce, but sell for $100. Does this mean they make $99.95 in profit? Absolutely not, because they already spent $500 million on R & D. Which they need to recover, before they can go to work on the Next Big Thing. Such is the nature of the business.

In a similar way, yes, that individual e-book file cost almost nothing to produce. But that “free” copy comes only after they spent tens of thousands of dollars to bring your book to market. Which they need to recover, before they can go to work on the Next Big Thing. Such is the nature of this, or any, business.

Even before the advent of e-books, the cost of paper and printing didn’t contribute much to the cover price of a book anyway. Your average $14.99 novel, probably cost about $1.25 to print. For mass market pulp fiction, it’s even less.With this in mind, the logic behind the current controversy just seems…illogical. This kind of criticism can only come from someone who doesn't truly understand the economics of the publishing industry.

Even if we grant that the contract offers are unjustly anemic, it will create a whole new problem if the publishers simply grant a pay raise to all. If we pay a journeyman's wage to every apprentice today, the journeymen will demand a raise tomorrow. Which wouldn't be so bad, if we could simply double the cover price on all books to pay for it. But we can't.

In the real world, not every author merits a 50% royalty. Or a six-figure advance. Or a huge marketing budget. But if you work your tochis off to sell a few thousand copies of the book before us, then maybe we can do better on book #2. Which is as it should be. To remove individual merit from the calculation, is madness. Some authors, and some topics, show greater potential than others. Again, just like any other business.

You might be surprised to hear someone like me, a literary agent, take this position. After all, my job is to advocate for my authors and negotiate the absolute best deal for them. But my ability to sell your work, and the quality of that offer, depends as much on you as on me. How's your story? Your platform? Your endorsements? I need you to earn that better deal, not just demand it as an entitlement. I can coach you in some of these things, but you need to meet me halfway.

After four years as an agent, I have found that (with very few exceptions) every publishing contract comes with built-in wiggle room; you just need to know where to find it. That deal can be tweaked to your advantage, if you know how. I’ve closed about 40 deals, and each one left my desk looking better than when it arrived.

If you don’t like their offer, you can counter. If they won’t budge, you can vote with your feet (which I have done a few times.) If your book is truly as good as you think it is, another offer will follow. American publishers put out about 850,000 titles last year; the business is more competitive than it’s ever been, and you need to earn your way into it.

So, you want to get published? I figure, this can happen one of two ways: You can demand that the publishers lower their standards (not holding my breath), or you can lift yourself up to the market. Start now. Find a writer’s group. Find a mentor. Up your game. Make the cut. Pay attention. Pay your dues. Pay it forward. Leverage every rejection into an opportunity for education, not an excuse for bitterness. If you don’t know how to negotiate that contract, find an agent who does.

Then when you succeed, you won’t just be a published author.

You’ll be a better person.

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