Erik Sherman's WriterBiz

A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.

Name: Erik Sherman
Location: Massachusetts, United States

I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental

Friday, May 25, 2007

Simon & Schuster Takes Aim at AG

Last Friday I mentioned the Authors Guild warning about the new Simon & Schuster contract changing so that a book could effectively be "in print" forever, and how that has been creeping into publishing for years.

Early this week, S & S decided to fire back with an open letter "To Our Colleagues in the Author and Agent Community." The company made its central point in the first two graphs:
The Authors Guild has recently perpetrated serious misinformation regarding Simon & Schuster, our author contracts and our commitment to making our authors’ books available for sale. Unfortunately, these distortions were released by the Authors Guild without their having undertaken any effort to have a dialogue with Simon and Schuster on this topic.

In recent years, Simon & Schuster has accepted, at the request of some agencies, contract language that specifies a minimum level of activity for print on demand titles. Our experience with the current high quality and accessibility of print on demand titles indicates to us that such minimums are no longer necessary. Our position on reversions for active titles remains unchanged. As always, we are willing to have an open and forthright dialogue on this or any other topic.
Let's start taking this apart. The first graph is rhetoric - distortions without having trying to have dialog? That's a corporate way of saying that unfavorable news leaked out. Surely the company knows how professional writers would react. Did it seek to have "dialog" with the Authors Guild? Apparently not; it put the clause into contracts and, according to the AG, agents are reporting that S & S will not remove the passage. I guess talk is talk and printed contracts are something else.

Now for the second paragraph. Historically, the minimums were never to ensure a given quality of printing; they were to ensure a sufficient level of commitment on the part of the publisher. If you have to keep inventory, then you have an inducement to get it the hell out of your warehouse. And, again with the dialog - who cares if they won't negotiate the point.

Then the letter goes on to ask authors and agents to consider a number of points:
  • Through print on demand technology, publishers now have the ability, for the first time in history, to actually fulfill the promise which is at the core of their contracts with authors – to keep the author’s book available for sale over the term of the license.

  • Oh, please. A publisher is interested in profit. The core of the contract was to ensure that the publisher made reasonable efforts in exploiting the rights it was granted so that both it and the author could make money. Keeping something available for purchase means nothing if you aren't promoting the item, unless it has so much self-renewing demand - like The Catcher in the Rye - that the publisher almost couldn't screw things up even if it wanted to. Also, virtually every book contract I've reviews as ASJA Contracts Committee chair was for the length of copyright. That means past when the author dies. Having an ebook or POD text in a database isn't promoting the book.

  • We view this progress as a great opportunity to maximize the sales potential for slow moving titles, and some of the best news for authors and publishers in a long time. The potential benefit for all concerned in incremental income for the publishing partnership far outweighs any imaginary negatives purported by the Authors Guild.

  • This may be good news for publishers - get a bit more from that old dog in the virtual warehouse. But for authors? Not a chance. If there are dribs and drabs coming in through someone finding a book online, why not use POD yourself and get all the money coming in and not some small slice of royalty. Also note that many royalty clauses actually reduce the percentage for POD and ebook versions.

  • We and others are investing heavily in digitization so that authors and publishers can reap the maximum benefit of publication over the long term. New technologies including print on demand will extend the life of a book far beyond what has been possible in the past.

  • Yes, they will extend the life, but again it's the publisher that will really benefit. Most books never earn out their advances, so as these sales continue of their own accord and with absolutely no help from the publisher, the writer will likely never see another penny.

  • Contrary to the Authors Guild assertion, using technologies like print on demand is not about “squirreling away” rights, nor does it mean that “no copies are available to be ordered by traditional bookstores.” Print on demand is simply a means of manufacturing a book, making it widely available to retailers and consumers.

  • POD and ebooks are technologies, but they have an impact. They are considered "versions" of a book, and if your contract says that a title is in print so long as any version exists, that means the rights are perpetually theirs. The intent doesn't have to be focused on keeping the rights to make the effect that.

  • Publishers must and will continue to invest in sales and marketing organizations that work on behalf of its books regardless of how they are manufactured.

  • A publisher works on PR and marketing - in a minimum way for the vast majority of titles and for only three months. After that, it's the author doing all the work. This claim of S&S is actually laughable if you have any experience in the industry. And then there are all the ways in which they claim to promote. Stores don't stock backlist books unless they move heavily, and the publishers are the whipping posts of the retailers. The sales team reviewing "inventory opportunities?" That means pushing new titles, not keeping old ones in place. Category promotions? How many of the backlist books actually appear?
Yes, POD and virtually warehousing provide important tools for publishers - and I think they should use them. But lets stick with some level of sales activity that they create. If they can't do that, then they're not doing their jobs, and they shouldn't keep the benefit of the rights that they licensed.

UPDATE: According to the Authors Guild, Simon & Schuster is now saying that it will negotiate the rights reversion clause "on a book-by-book basis."

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