Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Walk on the Shady Side

A couple of weeks back, SFWA placed Night Shade Books on probation for a year, after authors who were having problems with the publisher contacted SFWA for help. What that means for hopeful authors is that we can't use novels published by them as credit for SFWA membership if we are bought in the next 12 months.

What it means for the industry as a whole, well... It shows that at least with smaller publishers, SFWA has teeth. The list of SFWA-credited publishers is more or less the 'default' list of legitimate science fiction and fantasy publishers. That doesn't mean that those who aren't on the list aren't legitimate, but it does mean an author who's talking to someone else could be looking at a much higher risk of problems ranging from late communication to outright fraud.

Those of you who know the industry may stop laughing hysterically now. I did not say there was no risk with the accepted publishers, merely that it is lower. The simple fact is that a closed system is always vulnerable to abuse, and while authors have no access to sales figures (however accurate they may or may not be) from any source other than their publisher, while distribution in the USA is concentrated into an effective monopoly and the publishing houses themselves are almost all owned by one of a handful of mega-conglomerates, authors will get screwed. It doesn't help that the people who choose which books to publish have less business nous than your average rock.

So, back to Night Shade. After months of putting off agents and lawyers, the SFWA penalty induced a fulsome apology. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a certain amount of cynicism about the timing of the apology.

What is tragic is that good faith - that is, believing Night Shade's assurances they had the e-rights - has smeared Baen's Webscriptions as well: the author of Mall of Cthulhu (a book I enjoyed reading) not unnaturally accused Baen of being complicit. He hasn't posted anything - yet - to say that Baen has apologized and taken action (they have - there have been questions on the Baen message boards asking why the book is no longer available), and a reader would have to check through the comments to his posts to learn that Baen took any action at all. The guilt by association is still there.

It's a mess, isn't it? But it gets worse...

You see, Night Shade is different from the rest in exactly one regard. They got caught. Listening to authors at cons - the unofficial chats you can't help hearing when you sit down to rest and you're not all that noticeable - is quite the eye-opener. I'd be surprised if there are many authors who actually believe the numbers in their royalty statements. There are complaints about having to get ebooks taken down from multiple sites, multiple times, but never seeing a penny in royalties from them. About signing more copies of a book in a couple of hours than the royalty statement says sold in three months. About discovering a book is a best seller in a foreign country - when the author had never known the book was translated. Worse, I've heard a lot of authors complaining that they can't actually do anything about this because if they do, no-one will buy them again.

And yes, that happens even to bestsellers. I can think of several authors who had a lot of books on shelves and then suddenly vanished. Overnight, as it were. You've got to be in the Stephen King league to be 'safe', and by then, well... You're generally too busy writing to want to waste time and money going after the industry's lax accounting practices and many other failures.

So the problems lumber on and accumulate until...

What? Sooner or later something will give. The question is what, and when. The answer? I have no idea.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

It'll last until enough writers become confident of their ability to live on their independently published e-books to sue regularly, and if a widespread pattern of wrongdoing is found, a class action lawsuit and possible RICO investigation. For the non-Americans, that's an anti-racketeering suite of laws aimed at organized crime.

MataPam

Anonymous said...

When a situation can't go on, it won't. It might look perfectly stable, but the mechanics of the sand pile prove it isn't.

The thing is that screwing your main supplier is NEVER a good idea. Screwing your client (which also is happening. Look at the price of ebooks) is even less of a good idea.

We are in a saddly economically illiterate age. We've been taught that you need the government to make sure business plays fair, and most of us have grown to believe it. This is wrong. Most of the time government intervention makes business UNFAIR, even if the government doing it believes it's unfair in the "right" way (at least until it changes its mind.) This is why monopolies NEED a government to occur. There are NO natural monopolies, not in the LONG term.

All these "unfair" practices are bad business. And bad business eventually kills the entity practicing it. It's sort of like insisting on eating poison. You might survive for a while. It might even make you pale and lovely, but eventually it WILL kill you. Now, it's not always instant and obvious (though in this case it's getting obvious) so people get upset, waiting and they call for force (all government is force. I mean, they have no other power. Only the power to force things on threat of punishment) to "help" things.

We have not -- good thing -- got to the point where writers or book buyers ask government for help. We won't. So these very bad business practices go on. In the short term. And worsen.

However, all of these things look immutable, till suddenly they aren't. This one -- thanks to new tech -- is on the verge of suddenly not being.

And everyone who runs these businesses and knows NO real business, and who thinks that unless government steps in -- into fiction? Which government would? -- they can do as they please, are on the verge of being VERY surprised.

Portia

Chris McMahon said...

I can't see any way out of this until authors can make a decent living selling their own work directly and get some sort of leverage as a resource that is in demand. It seems to me that there is no respect for what the author is providing - at a very high skill level - to the publisher.

Getting to the point where you can make a living selling your own work seems to be even more of a minefield.

Kate said...

Matapam,

Oh, the warm fuzzy feelings the thought of a RICO investigation inspire. Not least because I doubt any of them would survive it - given the rumor mill, at minimum the recordkeeping would be too... idiosyncratic to stand the light of day.

Kate said...

Portia,

To start with "what you said, in spades." Heck, even the assorted criminal enterprises know they have to offer a minimum level of value along the chain or they're in deep - often lethal - trouble. They certainly know better than to stiff their suppliers and only the really stupid ones try to stiff their customers.

Which, ladies, gentlemen, and others, is an excellent example of a true free market at work. The only government interference is to try to stop them - so there's no artificial distortions to this or that sector: no subsidization of powder cocaine over crack cocaine - and I guarantee if you could pay one of the top level drug cartel people enough to go into publishing, that person would be extremely business-savvy. They're running multi-million-dollar industries there. And - gee - there are precious few monopolies. Some local monopoly areas (hostile takeovers tend to be rather ugly), but for the most part, a lot of competitiveness and very low profit margins except at the top end of the market.

I'm not sure anyone in the Government reads fiction, unless you count the newspapers. They're not going to bail it out. Aside from anything else, no-one in the publishing industry has the money needed to bri.. *ahem* lobby for a bailout.

Kate said...

Chris,

Absolutely. While publishers treat authors like interchangeable widgets, they're asking for trouble - but authors still have to figure out how to bypass the widget factory and go straight to readers.

Conventions used to allow some of that. Less so, now.

It will be interesting to see what falls out of the assortment of author coops that are emerging.

Stephen Simmons said...

The solution I see is already happening around us, and has been hinted at repeatedly on the pages of this blog. It will come in several fitful (and some of them probably rather painful) steps.
- Lots of writers are beginning to self-publish, be it e-only, hard-copy, or both. Many of those writers are pumping out tripe -- but not all of them.
- Experienced writers who are fed up with the graft ad dishonesty in the system will begin collecting together for mutual comfort (like, say, forming MGC), and some of those groups will eventually take the leap of faith to launch their own small e-presses.
- Those small e-presses will find a natural affinity/synergy with a lot of the existing small-press publishers.
- Truly talented and devoted independent agents will adapt to swimming the shallows of the self-published e-works, looking for fish who need to be nudged into the schools coalescing around those breakout groups of "name" authors.

Of course, there's a very high probability that I'm completely out to lunch, as usual ...

Stephen Simmons said...

BTW, how goes the magma-world thingie?

Kate said...

Stephen,

I think you're on the right track here. I expect to see plenty of false starts and dead ends along the way - it's a well-established pattern of innovation. First you get a few tiptoeing early adopters, then there's a stampede and all manner of weird, wild and wonderful ideas crop up. Then the ones that work best start to float to the top and the rest are filtered out until you're left with a relatively small number of successful paths.

When they ossify or circumstances move too fast for them, the whole cycle kicks off again.

p.s. The magma world is bubbling away in my subconscious, somewhat hampered by high levels of stress - caused by the usual inability to beat the living crap out of a bunch of bureaucrats who thoroughly deserve it.

Stephen Simmons said...

Kate, by any chance, are you a "Dilbert" fan?

Did you see the sequence when the Pointy-Haired-Boss' secretary took over the company, and conspired with all of the other corporate executive secretaries to take over the world?

"Of course, then we realized that we would all need secretaries, and the whole thing fell apart ..."

Dave Freer said...

It's a difficult situation, with suspicion rife among authors (after all - even the most useless, such as myself, finds it hard to accept that the universe out there are not pounding their way to read our prose. We're inclined to blame pirates, covers, distributors, retailers, our publishers - etc, etc. before accepting that it could be us. Of course if the entire system was transparent and verifiable... well we'd have blame Chthulhu (Cecil who?) and not our own lack of appeal or incompetance. Seriously, in an industry where EVERY crash is ALWAYS blamed on driver error, it's hardly surprising that the drivers no longer believe that it is their fault, even when it might be. So you have a breakdown of trust by suppliers, and also to a growing extent by buyers. It's a situation which could use remedy.

Anonymous said...

But who is going to bell the cat?

Matapam

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - Baen already have a large supply of goodwill among authors by being substantially better than the rest with their contracts (for a start they're clear and in English, not legalese evasive, and they're less one-sided than others (there is room for improvement, of course, from writers point of veiw, but not on the level where you desperately need an agent just to survive a boilerplate contract). What new publishers need (and there will be many in the e-book rush) is authors with established names. They can't offer the infrastructure or spending power of the older rich behemoths. What they can do is to offer transparency and remedy some of the other things that really hurt, the rights grabs, the dog-in-the- manger attitudes to the same (I'd like to see use-it-or-lose-it with a time frame)and faster payment and mutually accessible sales records. And IF any of them have testicular fortitude - the courage to say occasionally and publically: 'We still believe that's a brilliant book, it's not selling because the cover/distribution/editing/retail needs work. We'll take the next book and try and fix what went wrong in the first. Believe me: any company that does that 10% of the time (which is a long way under the real figure, IMO) will have authors fanatically supportive and drawing their contacts in. At the moment maybe 10names are not regarded as nearly interchangeable easily (or relatively easily) replaceable components by most of publishing upper echalon. It does not -- if there are real alternatives -- engender much loyalty.

Kate said...

Stephen,

I am a Dilbert fan, although I missed that sequence. I did learn very early that the real power lies with the person who organizes the boss.

Kate said...

Dave,

Absolutely. It's rather hard to believe it could all be the author when said author isn't getting a reasonable chance in the first place.

If the book tanks with all the push the industry can give, that's a different beastie - but I don't think anyone here knows what 'all the push the industry can give' actually looks like from the author's standpoint.

Kate said...

Matapam,

There are too many ding-dongs around as it is. Much better to tunnel under the floorboards so the cat can never find you.

Kate said...

Dave,

Yes! Absolutely.

I think the best option for the epresses and start-ups is to sign established authors for the books the mainstream doesn't want to touch. That's more likely to be win-win, even though it could be kind of fraught along the way.

(Although probably not as fraught as my last couple of months. Let's just say it's a really serious problem when you forget that your passport is in your maiden name).