Mark Terry

Thursday, March 07, 2013

John Scalzi on Alibi

March 7, 2013
Yesterday John Scalzi wrote a scathing post about Random House's Hydra e-book imprint contract, which, basically, sucked. Today he's back, having gotten a look at Random House's Alibi ebook imprint, which also sucks. It's worth reading.

I wrote a lengthy comment, and figured it was worth posting here. So here it is.

I just wanted to write this here, because it’s worthwhile for everyone’s consideration. I’m neither agent nor attorney, however…
Book contracts are weird. In the overall world of contracts, book contracts are strange, okay? Because, if you don’t know anything about how publishing works, reading a contract – even one like the one discussed here and yesterday – might seem reasonable if you don’t know any better.
Which is why agents are of value in negotiating publishing contracts, and/or attorneys with experience with publishing contracts. (To which I want to add, but an attorney who is NOT familiar with publishing contracts, is not necessarily all that valuable here, because they won’t necessarily understand what is in a TYPICAL/STANDARD publishing contract.)
For instance, what is the “standard” for ebook royalties. Is it 10%? 15%? 20% 50? 70% It’s shifted around a lot since ebooks became popular and I honestly don’t know what would be a standard ebook royalty with a traditional publisher. I known that it’s 70% for ebooks you self-publish if your price is over $2.99 (in most platforms, anyway), and 30% otherwise, but I don’t how that compares to current publishing royalties today. I know what my agent negotiated back before ebooks really took off – the same amount as for the hard covers, which was something like 10%, which sucked then and sucks now.
The point here is that publishing contracts are somewhat loosely based on STANDARD PRACTICES WITHIN THE INDUSTRY. That is to say, for a long time, a standard royalty on a hardcover was something like 10-15%, although if you or your agent had clout, you might get more and if you or your agent didn’t, or were desperate, you might get less. And mass market paperback might be something like 6-8%, with variations depending on sales, i.e., 0-5000 copies gets 6%, 5001-10,000 gets 7%, 10,0001 + gets 8%, that sort of thing.
The additional point is that these change. They change because enough agents negotiate contracts in such a way that everybody pretty much agrees, yeah, a standard ebook royalty is now 25%. We can negotiate up a little or down a little, or nibble at the margins, or whatever, but the starting point is 25%. Writers organizations and agent organizations might exert group pressure, but (in theory, anyway), writers employ agents, not the other way around.
For example: 20+ years ago, agents charged 10%. Somewhere around the 1980s, agents decided, seemingly as a group, to charge writers 15%. They essentially gave themselves a 50% raise. For the most part, writers said, “Um, okay, sure, I guess.” Some didn’t. Sue Grafton, for instance, was very reluctant, although she eventually did agree to sign with an agent who charged 15%. Writers didn’t have much say in the matter, since writers typically work as sole contractors. (A significant exception is scriptwriters, who have a union/guild, and I like to think that if agents wanted to give themselves a 50% raise, the SWG east & west might have something to say on the matter).
All of which is to say, THESE CONTRACTS, these SHITTY, HORRIBLE, ETC, ETC contracts that John is discussing here, are probably perfectly legal. But they are not – AT THE MOMENT – STANDARD PRACTICES within the publishing industry. But apparently the largest publishing house in the country would like them to be. Which is disquieting, at the very least. But the way writers convince publishers not to try and change STANDARD PRACTICES so dramatically is to NOT SIGN THE CONTRACTS. Presumably some desperate writers will, because, for those of us who are published, we’ve been there. We know all about the desperation thing. But the fact remains, that you have way better options. The only thing these contracts give you is validation from Random House. But that’s a little bit like being told what a sweet, pretty victim you are by your mugger.


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I tweeted this entry.

Self publishing looks better and better. It's getting to the point where it isn't so much a matter of money as a matter of just on principle not caring to be screwed over.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, it's been a happy experience for me, for the most part. That said, the first couple years weren't very impressive. It definitely is a matter of having a number of books out there, each of them bringing in some money each month - it adds up.

I am uneasy, as most writers should be, about some of the trends I'm seeing in traditional publishing (without even getting into the freelance market, where I'm more than uneasy). Periodically a major publisher (Harlequin did something similar to Random last year) seems to float one of these e-publishing-for-profit schemes out there and you just have to look at them and wonder what the hell they're thinking.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

From outside looking in, it looks like they're thinking that this is easy money for them for minimal investment, and that authors won't be willing to pay out of pocket for the work that needs to be done in order to e-publish, or to do it themselves. I've seen some pretty good covers and some pretty good writing coming out of indie writers, along with most of it being as well (or almost as well, at least) edited as that of many of the smaller presses...

3:45 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Interestingly, I could go through some traditionally published books that I think needed some editing (the late Robert B. Parker's last handful of books, for example).

4:09 PM  

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