Reversion Clauses in an Age of Change

October 17th, 2011

As the book business changes more and more quickly, we need to write flexibility and clarity into our contracts, in ways that are fair to all parties, and yet allow for futures we cannot yet see.

I see reversion clauses that have problems in this respect, but I think I have one that works. What do you think?

My reversion version:
Rights to this work shall revert to the author(s) when royalty earnings, exclusive of any reserves taken or released, have fallen below $XY for one full year. At that point, rights shall revert within 1 month of receipt of the author’s written request.

Possible variations:
–The publisher shall have the right to dispose of or sell any printed copies on hand at the time that reversion is requested, if the author(s) does(do) not choose to purchase that stock for amount it cost the publisher to print those copies.

–The publisher shall have 6 months from the date of request to issue a new edition or otherwise improve sales and royalty earnings.

So, what problems and misunderstandings might occur under this sort of contract? How would we fix those issues fairly?

Writer Beware vs. Another Troll-Blog

October 12th, 2011

Writer Beware is doing battle again on behalf of all of us who work in small press publishing and all of the writers who are entering the industry.

Go, read, comment and support them, and all the other writers and editors who have been attacked by the trolls.

POD: Some Very Good Questions

June 26th, 2011

Most of my readers know that POD publishing and POD printing are not synonymous. It’s entirely possible for anyone to set up a publishing company (which is totally trivial to do), and send a file into a POD printer. And you’ve probably heard that it’s a much better idea. The questions that many of you may still have include:
–Why is it a good idea?
–Would price per copy be the only reason for not printing with a POD?
–Is there a marketing or PR reason to use one POD over the other?

Why is it better to use a POD printer than a POD publisher?
Sometimes it’s not. Those times are when you expect to sell fewer than a 100 copies in the life of your book. This might apply to a gift edition of Aunt Peggy’s early poetry, or a family history.

When you have valid reasons to expect sales of a few thousand copies over a couple of years, then you should be using offset printing, and an inexpensive warehousing option. Or perhaps an inexpensive fulfillment house.

In between those areas, and in a few other special circumstances, you will probably do best with a POD printer. POD publishers charge much more per copy (although those charges are often unclear to the new author — they’re certainly not broken out for you). No one in this business can afford to give away part of their profit. It’s a very low margin industry!

Would price per copy be the only reason you would avoid a POD publisher?
No. POD publishers tend to charge very, very low rates for their design and layout services, but you’re not getting more than you pay for. The quality, although good enough to a besotted author’s eye, tends to seem “a little off” to regular readers who don’t know you, and to show glaring problems to the educated eyes of the people (reviewers, buyers for bookstores, etc) who stand between you and large numbers of readers.

Is there a marketing or PR reason not to use a POD publisher?
There’s the company you’re keeping. Most books produced by POD publishers are, I’m sorry to say, dreadful, in design and in writing. They’re often labors of love, but that can’t save them from an audience of people who don’t know the author. If your book is classed among these “book-shaped objects,” it’s easy for gatekeepers to dismiss it, without a single second’s examination.

And gatekeepers must weed out most of the books submitted to them immediately. There were 3,000,000 books published in the US last year. That’s one every other second, for the every working hour. Reviewers and buyers don’t get to look at books all day, every day. At some point, they have to read some and write reviews, or look at some longer, and decide how many to order, for which store or library branch, or do whatever else justifies their paychecks.

Oh, and one last reason why you may want to go to POD printer: your book might actually do well!
If your book “breaks out,” you’ll probably need print runs of several thousand copies each month. You can’t afford to give away half of the possible profit, or more, by not switching to offset. But if you publish through a POD publisher, when you want to change printing, you have to change the publisher. That means changing the ISBN (because the original one came from your publisher’s block), and that means starting over with all the marketing, reviews, and other momentum builders.

Most POD publishers also don’t sell you the rights to the cover or the layout. You pay for these things, but you don’t own them. So, when you need to start printing more inexpensively, you also have to get a new cover and a new text design, and that, too, will damage your sales momentum.

There are other reasons, of course, for any decision. And there are exceptions to every generalization.

When you’re making decisions about publishing:
–DO YOUR HOMEWORK FIRST! There’s usually a simple, obvious solution that’s quite wrong for your book and your bank account.
–Read books before you make books, because even blogs like this are much too short to cover all the important things you need to think about.
–Crunch your numbers. Your P&L spreadsheets should be at least 2 pages, if they’re to include all of the important variables.
–Be aware that the popular press is an unreliable guide to the complexities of something like this industry.
–Don’t blindly follow the herd. It may be thundering over a cliff.

BEA 2011

June 3rd, 2011

Overall Impressions:

–Reed and the Javits staff have found a way to obscure the fact that it no longer fills an entire floor with exhibitors, but there was plenty of space around the edges for curtained enclosures and meeting rooms of various types.
–Despite the small number of exhibitors (or perhaps because of it), the aisles were full, and the mood seemed upbeat, enthusiastic and intent. I heard far less of the “this will be the last show” chatter.
–The “concurrent events” brought new blood into the mix. This bodes well for the future. Unfortunately, the total attendance didn’t go up with the inclusion of this new blood. That doesn’t bode as well.
–Oddly enough, I saw far fewer of the independent publishers’ booths and the denizens of Writers’ Row. It could be that the word has finally gotten out that those locations aren’t really offering the full benefit of being at the show, and that this isn’t a place where you go to sell a bunch of books on the spot.
–This was the “All Ebook, All the Time” BEA. I know that e- is the coming trend, and I certainly advocate being aware of how it can be used in your own publishing, and what the pros and cons are for your operation, but surely we could have found more topics to discuss? Maybe next year?

I attended one very interesting lecture, and yes, it was ebook-related. The presenter was from Attributor. If you publish in niches that suffer from large amounts of organized piracy, I would invest in their services. They search all of the darknet and legitimate file sharing sites (after all, there are legitimate reasons why you might need to upload things, for example team projects where people are telecommuting). When they locate files that might be caches of pirated material, use AI and expert systems to rank the most probably-pirated of the millions of files found, and then have humans examine them to prevent false positives.

Then they do a tiered enforcement action, resulting in a 99% success rate in getting the illegitimate material yanked, or converted to a revenue producing legitimate sales site.

But Self-Publishing Makes So Much More $

March 22nd, 2011

A number of bloggers, including, most prominently, Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, have talked about how self-publishers make more money than traditionally published authors. This can be true. More often, it’s not.

It is obvious that you can get a higher share of the total revenue if you cut out a middleman, or even several of them. BUT a larger share of a smaller total may not equal more money in your bank account.

Before you jump on the bandwagon, wise authors will consider a few things, such as:

How much will your sales of print books shrink when you no longer have a large press’ distribution muscle behind you?

How much will your subsidiary rights income shrink? Are you clued-in enough to sell your own? Which ones? First and second serial aren’t too hard, but translation? Audio? Or hardest of all, movies?

How much extra time or money will you be spending upon doing, or getting done, all of the editing, cover design, marketing copy, file conversion and proofing, and so on that publishers do?

Will you earn enough more to re-pay that extra investment of time or money?

When you are contemplating the best use of that manuscript you just spent hundreds or thousands of hours writing, it should be worth a few dozen hours of your time to learn about and evaluate the options available.

Go buy some books on the publishing process, and on running a publishing company. (That’s what a self-publisher is, like it or not.) Pull up your copy of Excel and do some spreadsheets on various possible courses of action, using real numbers from books that would be comparable to yours. (And if you don’t know how to get those real numbers — read some of my other posts!)

As always, you are invited to tell me where I have it wrong, or to ask me to explain myself!

A Chance to Do Well While Doing Good

February 7th, 2011

I have donated a 2 hour consult, plus assorted extras, to a charitable auction. I would normally charge $200 per hour for the consults, and $55 for the book and software package, so this is a $455 value. The crowd is not focused on publishing or writing, so the chances are that the item will go for a very low price. It’s here.

The auction supports The Lang School, which is a very special place indeed. They work with children who are simultaneously brilliant and learning disabled. You can probably imagine how frustrating and difficult it would be to walk in their shoes, especially in either normal or special education environments.

One of these kids could be the next Einstein, but without the support of an environment tailored to them, most will spiral into a cycle of failure, let alone realizing their potential and becoming the forces for good that they could be.

If you want to support the school, you can bid on the item above, or one of the others in the auction, at Bidding for Good. If you visit the school’s site, you can find out more, including this link for donations.

And finally, if you live in NYC, you can always come to the party, this Thursday, February 10. It’s called Cocktails at the Cabanas, and you can get a ticket here. I’ll be there, and it looks like it will be a lot of fun, as well as supporting a wonderful cause.

Media Responsibility

January 12th, 2011

If you’re reading this, you probably run a book publishing company. And you probably have strong ideas about your company’s role in society. Most of us do.

I ask you to consider it explicitly today, in the light of recent political assassinations in the US and elsewhere.

It is my opinion that we in the media bear a responsibility to our societies. It may be that citizens ultimately control the type of government under which they live, but it is the media that make it easy for demagogues to operate, or who hold their shabby tricks up to the light of day.

When we publish at book-length, we are uniquely able to ensure that political discourse stays away from fear-mongering, and to cry “Foul!” when public figures substitute appeals to emotion for logic.

Unfortunately, recent politics in the US and elsewhere have become increasingly driven by hate and fear. The results are not only that the unstable among us are driven to horrendous crimes, but also that we are not dealing with the enormous problems that confront our world and our countries. Very little substantive progress has been made by the right or the left in the US. No visible attempts to find mutually acceptable solutions are being made. And in other areas of the world (the Middle East springs vividly to mind), the situation is far worse.

We are letting our politicians and pundits get away with this. We are letting our citizens look past it, and see only the facts and figures that support their prejudices.

Of course, in shaping our readers’ world views, we must also find a market for our books. And being didactic won’t sell. But well written exposes of the cheap tricks used by both sides of any major issue just might. They’d certainly be easy to publicize! So, I challenge you to challenge your authors, editors and readers. Make them think instead of feel. Don’t let the demagogues win. We can be, we should be, the guardians of rationality and our books, even novels, can add to the light instead of the fog of fear.

Ideas and arguments are encouraged. As always, do tell me where I went wrong!

Love or Money?

January 3rd, 2011

Most writers write about what they love, and because they love it. From this, many conclude that they either can’t or shouldn’t make money. I disagree.

Millions of us love our work, but most of us are also paid. Very few of you would sneer at someone else because they were paid a reasonable amount for work they enjoy. Why hold yourself to a different standard? Is creativity so different from the labor that goes into other professions?

If you still feel guilty about money, donate the proceeds to charity, but recognize that donating your work to the public will probably cause them to ignore it. If you don’t seem to put a value on it, neither will the world.

One exception: you can give away complimentary copies. That can make the free copies highly valued, but it only works if they recipients are aware that they’re getting a “deal” on something that has been or will be sold to others.

A side effect of this “love or money” dichotomy, is that even more writers think they shouldn’t “write for the market.” Again I disagree.

I think that you owe it to your readers to respect them. I hear you thinking “Of course. But what does that have to do with the market?”

Your readers are your final market.

When you write with respect for your readers, you think about what they want from your book, and about why they are reading it. You try to understand who they may be, so that you can do that. And you try to hone your words so that they’re not only beautifully crafted but so that they deliver what those readers want as well as possible.

If you really respect them, you’ll invest the time to understand what alternatives there are out there (books and other resources) that will deliver what they want. When you know what is competing for your readers time, attention and money, you will understand what you can do for them that meets their desires and needs better than anything else around. And making sure that your book gives your readers more of what they want most from it is not only good writing, but also good marketing.

Oh, and one last note: We, in the book business, often proclaim that certain bestsellers are awful, and that the public just doesn’t know what they need. That’s rather arrogant of us. Instead, we should look to see what that book has done for its readers that made them forget the errors in technique. Readers don’t forgive clunky writing without cause. Understanding the cause is part of our job.

In sum: write for love, but don’t sell yourself or your readers short in the process.

Common Myths About Copyright

November 19th, 2010

Jane Smith, over at How Publishing Really Works, is doing a blog carnival on the topic of copyright in order to help spread the word about the issues in this area. I thought I might contribute my top 10 errors I hear made about copyright and intellectual property.

Myth #10: If I pay the site where I find the download, I’m not pirating.
Maybe. There are on-line stores that pay the distributors or producers of the video and music that they offer. There are others that don’t. You need to be very careful about this. Especially so, because many of the pirate sites not only charge you for material that isn’t theirs to sell, but also install malware on your computer as part of the bargain. Or steal your identity. Or . . .

Myth #9 Sending your manuscript to yourself in a sealed envelope is enough to establish your copyright.
This is just plain wrong. You have copyright as soon as you create the work, but you really can’t effectively defend it until you register with your national copyright agency. (In the US, that’s the Library of Congress Copyright Office.)

Myth #8: Anything that’s out of print is up for grabs.
Nope. Copyright extends for the life of the creator plus 70 years. And for corporate owners, it’s a similar length of time.

Myth #7: It’s hard to clear permission to use all or part of a work.
Sometimes, but not usually. There are agencies whose purpose is to help with this process for many types of work. For example, if you want to use part of a literary work originally published in the US, you should start by checking with the Copyright Clearance Center. Most of the ones you’re going to want will be there. Of course, you’re probably going to have to pay the owner for the rights you want, but the prices are usually quite reasonable. Failing that, you should contact the original publisher. Most of them have whole departments that do nothing but clear permissions.

Myth #7: Images you find on Google are available for your use.
They’re easy to steal, but they’re still under copyright, and you still need permission. And, of course, if you try to print them, the chances are pretty good that the resolution will be inadequate for your use.

Myth #6: Anything under 300 words is fair use.
Maybe, maybe not. For example, if the work is a poem or song, any use requires permission. (Other than listing the title in order to identify which work you’re talking about, or listing very short pieces in a review or piece of literary criticism.)

Myth #5: Fair use is clearly defined, and you can look it up and be safe.
Definitely not. Fair use is a defense your attorney can use if you’re sued. By then, you’re already spending more than you can afford. It’s better to clear permissions if there’s any doubt at all.

Myth #4: As long as I use proper attribution, I’m not violating copyright.
This confuses plagiarism and copyright violation. Giving other writers credit for their work may keep you out of trouble with your teachers when you’re writing a term paper, but it’s nothing like enough if you’re publishing.

Myth #3: Obscurity is a greater danger to writers than piracy. They actually gain sales from the exposure.
I know of one publisher who has sold 5,000 copies of a book that has been downloaded 250,000 times. I’m quite sure that there are other examples. Yes, some bodies of work become more popular after samples are given away. Other works sell more after free copies are available in another format (e- vs. print, usually). But this is a choice that should be left to the owners of the rights. Let them make a mistake if necessary, but recognize that this is their work, their livelihood, and their choice.

Myth #2: No real people are getting hurt in piracy. It’s all big business with tons of profit anyway.
This is so wrong, it’s funny. There are 100,000 publishers active in the US alone. Less than 100 of them (1/10 of 1%) are what anyone reasonable could call a big business. And none of them are rolling in money. And then there are the authors. Most of them are making less than minimum wage for their hours spent creating the work you want to use. Give them their due.

Myth #1: If it’s on the web, it’s free for use unless it’s behind a paywall.
Absolutely not. The law says that they have the right to control your use of it regardless. So does morality. Think:

Someone (or many people) worked hard to make it available to you in that one place. They’re giving it away in that one place for a reason. Kids may want attention, and nothing more, but they rarely create anything you’d want to use. The folks who are creating the “good stuff” deserve to be able to get what they want from you when they’re giving you that “good stuff.”

You don’t know what they want until they ask. Many will allow you to use an article with their byline and credit lines attached. Others want money, or links, or an ad beside it, or . . . . The only way to be fair is to ask.

So, those are my top ten myths. What are your favorites? And where did I err?

Estimating Sales, Part V: A Technical Issue

November 4th, 2010

I often refer people toMorris Rosenthal’s Graph of Sales Rank vs. Sales for Amazon. It’s the best I’ve found, and an admirable resource.

A commenter on Estimating Sales, Part III was having difficulty with the logarithmic nature of that graph. So, rather than answer the question in a very loooong comment, I’m adding it as a post.

Logarithmic graphs are used when a curve is complicated and hard to handle on a regular graph. We use them to straighten out the line, or remove one level of complexity from our attempt to get the formula for the line.

That’s the why of them, but the question was how do we use them. Our needs are simpler than a scientist or engineer’s.

To use the Amazon Sales Rank Graph, you need to know that each order of magnitude (1, 10, 100, and so on) starts with a large distance between one number and the next, and the lines get closer and closer together as you approach the next one.

The lines between 10 and 100 are 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, and so on, even though they’re never numbered. You can interpolate between those lines, using logs yourself, but we don’t want to do that.

Why don’t we? Because we’re estimating sales based upon historical data. The numbers aren’t very accurate in the first place. Our average sales rank isn’t. The implications of that rank aren’t (across years and seasons, and the vagaries of Amazon’s programmers).

So what do you do? Suppose that your book’s comparables are all in the range of 50,000 sales rank. Count forward from the line for 10,000 or back from the line for 100,000 (or both). Run down that line, and find where it crosses the red curve. As I write this, that point is also where curve crosses the horizontal line for 20 books per week. It’s actually not quite at the corner, but we’re not going to interpolate for further accuracy on the graph.

In fact, we’re not even going to multiply by 52 weeks per year to get annual sales. Just use 50. It’s close enough. (And better to be under than over!)

So, that’s how you duck the complexities of the log scales. If you are interested in more information about logarithmic graphs, I recommend the Wikipedia article on the subject.

I’m not really sure that I made myself clear above. If you have a question I didn’t clarify, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll take another try at it.