Saturday, June 20, 2009

There's a Storm Brewing


I'm a geek. That's one of the reasons why I was asked to join MGC. My morning routine -- after that first cup of coffee -- consists of checking email, saying a quick but heartfelt prayer to the gods of editors and agents that today will be the day of acceptance, and surfing writing-related blogs. These blogs are written by authors, agents, editors and -- gasp -- readers.

Over the few weeks, there's been a great deal of discussion about the RWA and its views on e-publishing. Okay, discussion might be too mild a term because emotions are running high and, in my opinion, rightly so. So, a little background and some links.

Sign number one that RWA, like so many in the publishing industry, looks upon e-publishing like the bastard step-child is the fact that there are no panels on the topic at the upcoming national convention. One of RWA's main goals is to educate its members and yet there is nothing on this rapidly expanding sector of publishing. As Kassia Krozer says in her May 29th post over at Romancing the Blog:

Where are the sessions on distribution, on royalties, on what digital publishing means? What are the differences between going digital only with a big house versus small? How do the deep discounts demanded by Amazon – especially in light of the fact that Kindle sales equal 35% of all sales for books available in both Kindle and print format – impact author compensation? What does the alphabet soup of formats mean to readers. DRM? Can it be less evil?

Then word came down that RWA had rejected a proposal from Angela James, Executive Editor for Samhain Publishing for just such a workshop. My understanding is that this workshop was turned down simply because it was proposed by Ms. James and Samhain. In the words of RWA president Diane Pershing:

Out of 400 workshop proposals this year, only two focused on digital publishing; one was deemed by the Workshop Committee to not be of the caliber needed, the other was by Deidre’s publisher, Samhain, which is not on the list of RWA Eligible Publishers (From RWA’s Policy and Procedure Manual, section 1.17. “Eligible Publisher” means a romance publisher that has verified to RWA in a form acceptable to RWA, that it: …..(3) provides advances of at least $1,000 for all books; and (4) pays all authors participating in an anthology an advance of at least $500). RWA policy prohibits a non-Eligible publisher from offering a workshop.

No discussion of whether or not the proposed workshop was "of the caliber needed". In fact, the implication is that it met, and probably exceeded, that particular requirement. No, it all comes down to the amount of the advance. If a publisher doesn't meet that magical number of $1,000 or more per author, they don't qualify and, therefore, can't present at RWA. Of course, RWA is more than happy for them to attend and give RWA their money. But, sorry Charlie, you can't push your wares because you don't treat everyone fairly.

This is where I put on my snarky hat, so bear with me. If your job is to protect your members and make sure they are all treated equally, then doesn't that mean you should require dead tree publishers to quit paying out those huge advances to their best sellers? Wouldn't it be more fair to take some of those five and six figure advances -- and more -- and give the new authors more advance money? Hey, you could even put some of it into promotion, right? And yes, I'm being snarky here but the point is made. Don't say you are doing it to make sure all your members are being treated fairly because it doesn't fly in the face of the industry today.

But this issue goes beyond letting Samhain present a panel on e-publishing. Somewhere (and I can't find the site right now and will look for it) it was noted that of the books presented for first publication RITA awards this year, something like 70% of them did not qualify because they were either PODs or ebooks. That alone should warn RWA that there is something flawed about their current perception of the industry.

Now, to give Ms. Pershing her due, she does seem to believe she is protecting RWA members: All digital publishers are not created equal. As recently as 2007, one start-up digital publisher filed for bankruptcy after acquiring the works of an estimated 154 RWA members, and in 2006, two individuals completely unknown to RWA set up a table near registration and started pitching their publishing company to RWA conference attendees. However, this again smacks of a lack of vision. After all, how many dead tree presses have gone out of business in that same period of time? How many imprints have ceased production, stranding who knows how many authors? No, if you are going to apply this standard to one sector of the industry, it should be applied to all.

Maybe I've been spoiled by my exposure to Baen and its view on e-books. But I think this position taken by RWA hurts not only the organization and its members but readers as well. And not just readers of Romance. RWA is the most visible, possibly even the most influential, of writers associations out there. As long as it takes this stance, it will be just one more cog in the old publishing model that prevents the industry from moving forward.

I highly recommend everyone go read Deidre Knight's post at ESPAN (Electronic and Small Press Authors' Network) on the issue. She writes more eloquently and with much more knowledge on the issue than do I. Especially telling, to me, is this:

RWA’s current stance on e-books is that a publisher must offer at least a $1,000 advance in order to qualify for legitimacy. Never mind that many digital authors far exceed that amount in royalties, or sell more than 5,000 copies of print editions of their e-published titles. The problem with RWA’s simplistic criteria is that it ignores one crucial fact. Our industry is changing radically, with traditional publishers seeking innovative models for overhauling their distribution and content.

The industry is changing. Technology is changing. Cell phones, iPhones, e-book readers, netbooks and so many others offer other ways of reading a book besides picking up a dead tree copy. I'm not advocating allowing anyone with a scanner and computer to become a "publisher". Nor am I knocking RWA for wanting to protect its members. What I am suggesting is that perhaps it is time to revisit the business model of publishing and adapt to the changing times.

What do you think?

17 comments:

Dave Freer said...

I think they should amend their wording slightly. to include or have paid more than x percent royalties of $1000.

Electronic IS the future, but we will stll need gatekeepers. And the reality is those gatekeepers are going to earn from established authors... what authors do today, more or less - ie they'll be taking royalties on sales. I'm not convinced it'll grow the number of authors making a living (I'd like to believe this, but the old 5% of fisheremen catch 95% of fish adage applies). I'd like to see the price LOW and access DRM free, and authors looking at getting half - at least - of the savings on retail, storage, distro, returns.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

It is a tricky question. Anyone can call themselves an E Publisher and set up a web site. So there needs to be guidelines.

I'm not sure what the guidelines are for Romance Writers of Australia but I understand they are more open to E-publishing.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, I agree that electronic is the way of the future and, imo, DRM should be condemned to the depths of Hell. And I'm not saying RWA is completely wrong here. However, my big problem is that, if they want to educate and protect their members, then they should hold a panel for all their members, not just the Pro members detailing what to look for when going the electronic route. It also means looking at what the legitimate e-publishers are doing with regard to advances and royalties. It simply isn't logical to expect them to operate under the same set of rules as dead tree publishers do.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, I agree about the need for guidelines. Just not to the point that legitimate publishers are excluded. And, as I said to Dave, I think RWA -- and every other professional group -- needs to be educating their members about e-publishing, the strengths as well as the pitfalls. Otherwise, there will only be more problems before the general writing public understands e-publishing as well as it does print publishing.

matapam said...

I suspect that this is a case where rampant capitalism will determine the outcome. The Baen slush pile is running about a year behind. I get a lot of replies to rejection letters along the lines of "Oh, who cares, it's selling well on Lulu." Or an Epublisher or other things I don't recognize.

I don't think this issue is going to wait for the traditional publishers to figure it out. The publishers are going to have to figure out how to compete with various types of self-publishing.

Services that read, rate and recommend books, and possibly even work out small print run agreements with authors whose work they are pushing are the sorts of enterprises I expect to see emerging from the blogosphere to become paying concerns.

Whether anyone, writer or critic, can make a living, that way . . .

Amanda Green said...

Pam, I agree that things aren't going to wait for "traditional" publishers to figure out. They are either going to adapt for find their market shares reduced, possibly vastly reduced.

Your comment about self-pub made me shudder, although you're right. The shudder came from a conversation I had today with a gentleman who come to a crit group I belong to. He was under the impression that you have to pay the publisher to put out your book UNLESS you have an agent. Needless to say, we had a discussion about the difference between vanity presses, POD, traditional publishing, etc. The conversation simply brought home to me the need to help educate writers, new and experienced, in the different forms of publication available now.

As for your comment about the services that may emerge from the blogosphere, I think you may be right there as well. Which will mean a whole new set of potentials and problems that will need to be looked at and adapted to.

The next few years in publishing are going to be interesting. Of course, I'm not sure if that's interesting as in this is going to be fun or as in the old proverbial sense where we are all going to want to duck and cover and wait for the dust to settle.

matapam said...

The two problems with self publishing are the predatory companies and the quality of material being self-published.

The first needs education, the second, well, education.

So many manuscripts desperately _need_ editing, but that just opens the door to the predators.

If POD gets cheaper, if e-readers get better. . . Both of which will happen, but how soon will either go far enough to start cutting into the traditional publishers market share?

As for referral services, I have to plow through so much slush just in SF, that I can guarantee I won't be reviewing available-for-download books myself. And you'd have to have a lot of customers paying to have the piles of material high-graded and reviewed to make a critique service worthwhile. And the sheer volume of slush!

Amanda Green said...

And then you run into the issue of whether a paid for review can be a fair review or not. Sure, some of the reviewers will tell their honest opinions about a book regardless of whether they were paid or not. But there will be others who will give a book a review based on the amount of pay received, and that could lead to a scandal similar to the radio stations playing songs more often for pay.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Self publishing may become viable (cheap) with the ability to print on demand as you need books, but there is still the problem of distribution.

I run a lot of workshops and I met someone who had printed their children's book and decided the best way to get publicity was to send copies to famous people all over Australia. I think they thought the famous people would read the book and recommend it to their friends.

At the other end of the spectrum I meet people who won't send their book out to publishers because they're afraid the publishers will steal the ideas in the book, or even the book. Then I have to explain about copyright and how, without writers, there would be no publishers.

Amanda Green said...

Rowena, copyright seems to be one of the least understood aspects of writing for the person just trying to break into the business. It ranks up there with the misunderstanding about whether they should pay an agent up front or not.

Education about how the industry works seems to be the key. The question is, how should that information be disseminated so that it is easily available to those who need it?

Dave Freer said...

(evil grin) Rowena said:
"how, without writers, there would be no publishers"

That's half of the truth, Rowena. The full one is 'without readers there would be no writers and as a result no publishers.'
It's something a shocking number of writers and and publishers don't quite seem to have figured out yet ;-).

Dave Freer said...

I'd say the problem was not so much one of distribution as opacity and volume overwhelming the market. Let's say at the moment 1 book in 3000 makes it to a publishing by a normal publisher. Of those 3000, 10% or 300 were actually readable. The others are a sea of drekk, typos grammos and non-existant story (If you're reading this I imagine you are savvy enough to be one of the 300). And of those 300 perhaps 30 will be the final cut of books that could make it with no further major work, and 6 will be books someone (not necessarily the editor you sent it to) will really enjoy. Reading 500 books to find you like is no one's idea of fun.

For new authors there will always be a need for some kind of gatekeeper - a harsh one people trust to some extent. As I think Pam could confirm - cutting the the 90% of should never have submitted in the first place is easy, and I suspect most slush readers/editors get that right most of the time. After that it gets progressively harder.

At the other end of the scale publishers constantly tell us how they make most of their money out of their bestsellers... who if they're real bestsellers, big enough not to need publicity - Dave Weber, Louis Bujold to name two good egs -- the time is fast approaching when they really won't NEED publishers. The editing service that publishers provide, and the publicity, and the physical running of an e-distrib site they can subcontract quite cheaply. At which point the publisher is in deep doo-doo as his cash cow doesn't need him and the bottom end that needs him doesn't make money. The new bestseller of the future will, I suspect be faced with restraint of trade contracts to try and keep an author once they are established.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

READERS!

Dave, how could I forget readers?

Writers without readers are like the sound of one hand clapping.

Dave Freer said...

Oh YOU wouldn't, Rowena! Not implying that. But it is surprisingly widespread. I remember reading an author-blog some months back where the point was that the author had no compact with the reader... It was put a little more subtly but in a nutshell, pay me your money and that's it my side of the bargain. People lined up to agree. I don't. When a reader pays for one of my books, 1)It'll be the best I could do. 2)If you were expecting a sequel, if humanly possible, I will try to do it. Yes, real life intervenes. But you trusted me, and I must do my best to return that trust.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, thank you for reminding us that there is another aspect beyond the there'd be no publishers without writers viewpoint. I know the blog entry you're referring to and, when I first read it, I cringed. I can't help wonder if this industry might not be in at least a slightly better position if more writers remembered that they do have a relationship with the reader, one that can be fractured irrevocably if the writer doesn't strive to do his or her best with each book. I've read too many books by so-called best sellers and/or critically acclaimed authors who seemed to have just phoned it in.

So, to you, Sarah, and the rest of MGC -- as well as other authors who believe as you do -- thanks. I know I can pick up one of your books and know you've done your best.

Dave Freer said...

Look in part I agreed - authors have lives, disasters and inspiration is sometimes hard to turn on like a tap. But there is definitely more to it from my POV than 'caveat emptor' and walk away. There is a bond of loyalty between me and my readers, and loyalty is always a two-way street.

Amanda Green said...

There is most definitely more than the caveat emptor and walk away. As a reader, I look at it as my duty, for lack of a better word, to an author I like to read their books and, if they happen to write something I dislike, not to automatically cross that author off my TBR list. I'll give him, or her, a second or third or even fourth chance because I know not every book will be the same quality as the one before it. The immediate result might be that I'll buy the soft cover instead of hard cover. But unless it is an extreme situation, I don't automatically quit reading an author just because I don't like one book.

And, like most fans, there are certain authors -- coff Dave Freer coff -- who don't writer quickly enough for me. Correction, who don't have books coming out in print quickly enough for me. But I'm not going to go around gnashing my teeth and beating my chest and figuratively castrating the writer because he's not writing what I want, when I want. I see too much of that online, especially in certain fora.

I guess what I'm trying to say is I'll continue to buy books by authors I like, even if they come out with a book or two that don't hit my favorites list. That's my loyalty to them. In return, I hope they are doing their best and I'll try to remember they have lives too.