Bread and Roses
They weren’t even supposed to have jobs, these interlopers. They weren’t supposed to earn a living on their own. That’s what the gatekeepers said — men and husbands and fathers. They said this lesser race of people were supposed to be satisfied. They should be grateful to subsist on scraps and on domestic crumbs.
The 1912 textile strikes were led primarily by women, who were treated horribly in the workplace even as they fought to improve conditions for all. The slogan that emerged from the 1912 strikes was: We want bread, but we want roses, too! Women workers demanded fair wages and fair treatment all at once. They fought for an increase in pay and a promise not to be discriminated against.
There are parallels one century later. I don’t want to compare anyone’s working conditions to what women went through at the turn of the 20th century (or today for that matter), but once again we see interlopers fighting for the rights of all workers, even as they fight for dignity and respect. Once again, you have the very people being denigrated and judged and barred from entry working out here on the curb for the better treatment of those on the factory floor.
We have to. Because we sure as hell aren’t getting any help from our leadership.
Scott Turow, the head of the Authors Guild, spends his time fighting for publishers and for bookstores — the very parties who stand between writers and readers. These publishing partners can be great facilitators or they can be great abusers, and it should be the job of the Authors Guild to ensure which. Just as it should be a union’s job to make sure factory and retail don’t harm the transfer of labor to the consumer.
Instead, the Authors Guild came out for price-fixing and higher costs to readers. Scott Turow sees Amazon as the enemy, even as an increasing number of authors today make a living primarily through self-publishing and e-books. I have yet to see Scott lash out at publishers for their unfair contracts and horrid pay. When HarperCollins released data showing that it makes more from an e-book sale than a hardback sale while the author makes less, where was Scott? Where was anyone representing authors?
I don’t have much of a platform, and nobody should really care what I think — but this is my blog, so let me tell you where I stand on things these days. And let me also introduce you to the people who stand for me and with me, whether they mean to or not.
I stand for the ability of those who choose to write for a living to have the best opportunities possible. It’s a narrow focus, but it’s one I’m passionate about. I’ve been passionate about this for longer than I’ve been writing. It goes back to my book review and bookstore employee days. As a reader who loved stories, I cared for those who created them. Now that I’m on the other side and have become friends with storytellers, this cause is strengthened. And the more I learn about the abuses authors suffer, the more I want to speak out.
So here’s what I think the Authors Guild should be saying. Here is what their platform should be. (And I’m too busy running a hypothetical publishing house in Houston, so for goodness sake, don’t think I want another job. I don’t):
1. No more digital rights until e-book royalties are 50% of net. Right now, e-book royalties at the Big 5 are 25% of net. They do not compete on this front. There is no budging. As shown by literary agent Brian DeFiore (in a post that has been taken down but is summarized here and elsewhere) the increase in profits at major publishers right now is coming on the backs of authors. Go read the summary and then come back. If this was the only thing going on in publishing today, it would be more than enough for our outrage. While publishers bemoan the advent of e-books in public, they profit. While they claim they can’t pay a dime more for e-book sales, they take money from the pockets of hardworking writers and stuff it into their own. Are you angry? You should be.
2. No more “Most Favored Nation” Clauses. These clauses are one of the primary reasons authors can’t get more than 25% of net on e-book sales. These clauses may be unconstitutional for the anticompetitive result they have. You would think a lawyer like Scott Turow might be interested in fighting these rather than accepting them in his own contracts. The way the clause works is this: Any author with one of these clauses in their contract is guaranteed to receive the same royalty rate on digital book sales as any other author in that publishing house. Which means if I am given 50% of net, the likes of Stephen King and Scott Turow will get 50% of net.
I would love for publishers to simply give all authors 50% of net on e-book sales (see #1), but part of their reluctance in negotiating even a single fair contract is the thousands of existing revenue streams that would be impacted. We need to break the ice, which means the agents and authors who agreed to these clauses should fight to have them struck from existing contracts. And no new contracts should be signed if they include this clause. But that would require authors like Scott Turow — who undoubtedly has this clause in his own contracts — to . . . I don’t know . . . care about other authors.
3. No more DRM for Guild members. The Authors Guild should come out against punishing the paying customer. Authors should be encourage to only sign publishing contracts that stipulate no digital rights management on their e-books. We don’t handcuff readers to our hardbacks. We don’t make it impossible for them to pass the book off to a friend or spouse when they’re done. We don’t care if they sell it to a used bookstore, which then sells it to someone else. DRM harms the paying and honest reader and poses a 5-second annoyance to the illegitimate user. The Authors Guild should demand an end to DRM.
4. Fair pricing for e-books. The Authors Guild should be arguing for lower e-book prices, not higher. Again, Scott Turow’s reign as president of the Authors Guild has seen him arguing the opposite of what is good for writers. And once again, readers are harmed as well. Lower e-book prices mean more sales for more authors. The lower the prices get, the less authors compete with one another. Today, it is more common than not to find readers who load up on e-books and only finish a fraction of what they purchase. Part of what they are purchasing is the convenience of choice. It is the portable library that does not clutter the home.
I have not seen this discussed anywhere before, but the economic reality of this is like reverse insurance for authors. A reader spends $20 on 5 e-books, and the royalties are split between those 5 authors. Only one of the books is read to completion, and yet none of the purchases cause regret. Since reading requires more of an investment in time than listening to music or watching movies, this habit of buying at impulse price, sampling, and not returning is a way of distributing wealth to more writers without harming the reader, the manufacturer, or the distributor. But publishers and the Authors Guild want to get in the way of this by supporting collusion and the $14.99 e-book. Who does that help? Bookstores and the handful of big-name authors (like Scott) who can command $14.99 for a bundle of electrons. Who does it hurt? The little guy and gal. The debut authors. The readers. The mid-lister. Is your pulse pounding? It should be.
5. No More Non-Compete Clauses. The Authors Guild should recommend to its members that they refuse to sign contracts with any form of a non-compete clause. They should also be writing public letters to publishers demanding that these unfair clauses be stricken from all future contracts. Instead, we get not a peep from the Authors Guild on this issue. I’ve railed against non-competes before, but you don’t stop striking until working conditions change, so let me wave my placard once more. Non-competes give publishers the unchecked ability to control a writer’s output and hence their career. They don’t even serve a purpose. It hasn’t been shown that a similar release from an author in a short time window will do anything other than increase the sales of both books. Like the stance on DRM and the reluctance to work with libraries, this is a policy based on fear and not on reality. Speaking of operating with fear as a guid…
6. Stop Fighting Free. Authors should have the ability to give away copies of their e-books. Maybe not unlimited copies indefinitely, but there should be some sort of new clause structured that opens the door for free promotions solely at the author’s discretion. Neil Gaiman once convinced his publisher to offer American Gods for free, online, for a period of one month. His print sales of the same book shot up 300% (see p.17 of this awesome free book). The publisher pulled the promotion at the end of the month, and the sales went back to normal. Even with such direct correlation, fear won out, and Neil has been unable to repeat the experiment.
This idea of limited free promotions is not original. Amazon provides this ability through their KDP Select program, giving authors the ability to give away as many copies of their books as they can by providing 5 “free days” for every 90 days of exclusivity. Publishers should do the same thing, and the Authors Guild should help fight for this ability. Let’s adopt the Amazon model and say that authors get 5 promotion days every financial quarter. The author alone can opt in; the publisher can’t give away their book without their permission. With coordinated promotions, this could be a huge boon for new, struggling, and midlist authors, the very three segments of the writing population we should be fighting for. This is the sort of progressive thinking our representatives should be doing. Admittedly, I’m cheating a little by grabbing ideas from that great Satan to authors, Amazon. Speaking of which…
7. The Authors Guild Should Embrace Amazon as a Friend to Writers and Readers. Until publishers make these changes, the Authors Guild should be celebrating Amazon for increasing readership, increasing the diversity of published voices, lowering prices for readers while also increasing royalties for writers, and revolutionizing reading in a way that keeps it relevant. Blaming Amazon for the move of goods out of physical stores and onto online stores is ridiculous. This is the inevitable result of the creation of the internet. This is the freedom of shoppers to choose. It was going to happen, no matter what. And here’s something that I doubt has been said before: Thank God it was Amazon.
Think about it for a moment. It could have been WalMart or Costco or a number of other massive retailers who began shipping books at a discount through an online portal. It could have been a retail giant that sells everything that began to sell books online. Instead, it was an online bookseller who branched out into other products. There is a massive difference. The love of books remains at the heart of Amazon. Those who have worked with the people behind that smiling logo know this. From Jeff Bezos (who married a writer and started out by selling books out of his garage) down to the people I met on the factory floor of the CreateSpace printing facility, I’ve never been around a group who loves books more. The Authors Guild should be championing Amazon for what they’ve done for readers and writers. The pressure for fairer contracts and wages is coming primarily from here. The champion for the status quo and more abuses is coming from the guild of my profession. Dystopian novels can’t satirize this sort of thing without being mocked for being ridiculous.
Those are just a few of the platform changes I would love to see our guild fight for. But they do not. They will not. Fortunately, I’m not out here on the curb alone. I’ve said this numerous times in numerous places, but the great irony of the stigma of self-publishing is that self-publishing will be the force that brings about positive change for all writers. Authors like Sue Grafton and Jonathan Franzen will denigrate us, just as women were made to feel unworthy of the work they produced, but the competitive nature of our publishing freedom will be an agent of change. And people like JA Konrath, Barry Eisler, Kris Rusch, The Passive Guy, and David Gaughran will lead the way.
They won’t be the only ones. Authors like Brenna Aubrey, who survey the publishing landscape and choose freedom over tyranny, will make a massive difference. There are thousands of authors like her and more coming every day. Brave authors who believe in themselves and their convictions. There are also authors like Paulo Bacigalupi who will win national awards while publishing with the small presses that aren’t just fighting for these changes but in many cases are already implementing them. There will also be established authors with massive hearts like John Scalzi, who despite their incredible successes with major publishers will stand up and demand fair treatment when they see abuses and win change as a result. Neil Gaiman has already been mentioned as a writer who has fought for the power to give books away to readers. And outside of publishing, artists like Louis CK, Amanda Palmer, and Macklemore and Ryan will serve as powerful examples to publishing houses.
But none of these writers or artists are as powerful as the real group bringing about change, and that’s the readers. A swelling number of readers are actively seeking out indie books. They use websites like IndieReader.com and Amazon’s bestseller lists to find new and fresh voices. They share recommendations on social media. They write reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Readers will be the ones who force change. Just as a boycott of goods will quickly win concessions where a strike might not, their millions of individual decisions based on economics and taste will get us there. Because the Authors Guild sure as hell won’t.
So that’s where I stand on the current state of the publishing industry. I want artists to earn a fair wage rather than to be squeezed with this sudden revenue stream from digital books. I don’t stand alone, but I wonder what would happen if we all stood together? I wonder what would happen if we had a guild that studied the changes in the market and fought for its members rather than for management? When the digital revolution hit Hollywood, look what happened there. The WGA rallied 12,000 members and went on strike. Hollywood was effectively shut down. As a result, the writers won higher royalties on streaming media, which had become a sudden source of revenue to studios and a pittance for writers in existing contracts. The market changed due to technology, and artists demanded that their contracts change to match.
Imagine what would happen if authors stood together and the Big 5 publishers were unable to sign new contracts for three months. Small presses — where authors are given fairer contracts but more limited distribution — would get a much-deserved boost. Independent authors would get a much-deserved boost. Readers would finally have a chance to catch up on their TBR piles. And the short term loss from debuting and renewing authors would be offset by long term and permanent gains across the profession. It would be an amazing stance for writers to take in order to stop the current squeeze on e-book royalties. Where again, let me repeat, publishers are making record profits on the backs of artists, and no one is doing a thing about it.
Hey, I’m not advocating for a strike. Don’t misunderstand me. I would never do that.
But maybe an Authors Guild would want to look into it. If we had one.