FULL BLEED: KING OF NOTHING
I do wish I’d come up with that title. I didn’t. But I know the guy who did. He's pretty sharp.
I’m using the phrase to talk about not only my own writing career, of which I am solely responsible sovereign and how indeed it is not a vast field of riches. But it is mine. It’s not built on someone else’s work. It’s not a franchise. I put in the work of half a lifetime and I reap the rewards. Which are not monetary or vast sheafs of sold books (electronic or otherwise).
Recently, I was involved in being approached by an electronic publishing company. Not for my work, which is valuable to primarily me, but a back catalog that I have some attachment to. The company sounded like they knew what they were doing in terms of reaching through Amazon’s system and gaming digital ads to get page turns and sales. Yeah, they were very big on Amazon Unlimited. I’m not. There’s a lot to not like, mostly in it rewards the generation of content. Over and over. The content must flow.
But in this case, that’s not such a problem. It was regarding a back catalog that’s doing okay on its own, but could be doing more. So, sure, lets look at things.
Things were fine on the first meeting. They said a lot of the right stuff. They had an audience that was hungry for the books they were packaging. And yeah, ultimately they were packagers, not publishers. This isnt a dig, but reaching for accuracy. A lot of publishing now is packaging and algorithm massage to try and connect to the digital audience. It’s not a think I have any aptitude or desire for. If someone wants to do that work for a reasonable chunk of things, then yeah, let’s talk.
Of course, definitions of “reasonable” are going to vary. That’s what negotiation is about. Only when we got to the whole figuring of royalties, there was a big stumbling block. They wanted the lion’s share of things. On books that were written well before we’d even heard of these dudes. And the figure that they wanted out of digital sales was non-negotiable. As in immovable, the rock upon which their business was set. Reminder that on these digital sales of titles less than three bucks apiece, Amazon takes a usurious 70 percent first. What these dudes wanted was a bigger than half chunk of that remaining thirty percent. Yes page turns are paid out differently, but they still wanted the bigger piece of those too.
Okay, well, people are making this work. Must be secondary rights or just, you know, something else.
Well, these dudes were going to lay claim to more than half of whatever secondary rights sales happened. They were effectively taking a more than managerial share of things.
What the utter fuck is happening?
I mean, I get it. If I could take a huge share of things in any deal, I sure would. But I also have some basic sense of fairness and none of this passes the smell test. Sure, if you’re making things more valuable, then you deserve a piece.
Hold up. I forgot to mention the advances that you get that totally balance this out. They’re good. You ready for this?
Nothing. You get nothing at signing. Nothing at turning in a book. You earn when it earns. Think of it as you get a bit of the commission, Amazon gets most of it and the publisher in question gets a bigger bit than you. It’s the best.
Again, what the fuck is happening?
Well, fear for one. Nobody knows what the fuck is going to happen in a couple years, just a couple of investor report cycles down the road. So they’re scared. I get that. I’m scared too. But I’m scared about different stuff. Like what happens when the big publishers who’ve merged and grown over the last decade or so have decided that they can no longer afford to feed their print and distribution channels. Oh, you thought that new hardcovers were only a bit more expensive than ebook first editions out of the generosity of the publisher’s hearts? Nope. They’re trying to keep the dead tree book infrastructure on life support maybe thinking that reel be a vinyl style renaissance for paper books. Folks, I love paper books. I stare at a screen all day long when I’m working. Light on paper is a lot easier, and I can take it outside.
There will not be a vinyl renaissance for books. That hard copy market is pretty calcified, much like the single issue comic book market largely is. Besides music is consumed differently than books, etc. etc. I’ve digressed. Let me get back on track.
So, I’m supposed to tell folks that it’s a good idea to take a deal where you get no money up front, surrender the largest chunk of secondary rights, surrender the biggest chunk of any Amazon royalties, all on the promise that maybe one of your books will bubble up through the algorithm and you get a big one-time payment when that happens (which the publisher magnanimously does not take a bite of)? I’m supposed to say “yeah, well you might win a small lottery pot, so go for it”?
I couldn’t say that. Mostly because I would not take that deal myself. It’s a garbage deal that works for people who are a very small slice of writers out there. It’s for folks who are on the olde side of things who signed contracts before ebooks were figured out and therefore weren’t subject to a rights grab by publishers (which started happening in the nineties). If you happen to have a large back catalog that isn’t doing anything and you don’t think that you can do better and you don’t mind being the person who write the goddamn book and you get the smalles slice of a pretty small pie, thanks Amazon, then I guess it could work out for you, maybe it’s a hedge against things getting even worse.
Oh, I forgot to mention. Once you’re in the system, well, of course it works a lot better for everyone involved if you can get some new frontlist material out there. That’ll help lift your back catalog, too! Get back in the game!
You know what you get paid for new frontlist material? Oh, guess. It’s fun.
That’s right. It’s just as if you turned over another book that had been written before. You got this. Same small chunk, same small secondary rights chunk, same no advance.
Hey, if I had no scruples and I could get folks to sign that deal, I probably would offer it, too. Oh, sure, they put a cover on it and do all the copy edits (structural edits? In this economy?) and it’s good to go.
Folks, it’s a crap deal. Don’t sign crap deals. Life’s too short. Hell, I’d say don’t even sign in to Kindle Unlimited, but I suppose if you got a bot farm to turn pages for you, then maybe? (Disclaimer: I am not recommending a bot farm or a review mill or sockpuppet accounts to buy copies of your book or any of the other garbage stuff that the Algorithm encourages people to do in an effort to get ahead.) You, however, are the only one who can decide if you want to take a crap deal.
Oh, did I mention that you know, if you don’t want to write it, they’ve got a stable of writers who can write in a sort of mimicry of your style and you just collect the money off your IP, but you name goes on the cover.
Yeah. That’s part of it too. Hell, in comics at least I know that Im not getting a Bob Kane BATMAN comic, but a comic by other artists and writers and colorists and inkers and lettermen’s and editors. That’s fine.
Like I said, maybe it works for some folks. More power to ‘em. It’s a scary world out there, trying to make money from your writing. Scarier all the time. Like the freelance agreement I saw from a big, national newspaper that, sure, would run a condensation of your long memoir, and pay you something for it, but you gotta cough up half the rights to podcasts, films, limited series, whatever. Half. For freelance work that was brought to them. Now, sure, an agent would get you a better deal, likely. But to even offer this in good conscience?
I know it’s way easier to be a packager and just rake in the bucks. But to not even do that? To offer access to your segments of the marketplace (as both the big national newspaper and the unnamed Amazon publisher are effectively doing?) That’s what you’re actually trading for, ultimately, and I guess maybe it’s worthwhile. But maybe that lottery ticket is, too.
Me? I guess I’ll be a stubborn king of nothing.