[GUEST POST] J.M. McDermott Says Our Digital Future is Already A Few Months Behind Us, So What Is It, Exactly, and What Should We Do About It? (Part 2)
J.M. McDermott‘s first novel was plucked from a slush pile and went on to be #6 on Amazon.com’s Year’s Best SF/F of 2008, shortlisted for a Crawford Prize, and on Locus Magazine‘s Recommended Reading List for Debuts. His short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Apex Magazine, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among other places. He has a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, and an MFA in Popular Fiction from the Stonecoast program of the University of Southern Maine. By night, he wanders a maze of bookshelves and empty coffee cups, and by day he wanders the streets of Atlanta, where he lives and works. He tries to write in between.
[Continued from Part 1...]
Amazon is a gorilla that would think nothing of ripping your arms off and beating you to death with them if it meant they could control more of the market share of the publishing world. Make no mistake about that. But, instead of ripping arms off, they have a different tactic in their quest to reach the top that is sneakier by far. Firstly, they have infinite shelf space. Secondly, they have magnificent accounting.
Unlike most software, a text file is not really going to go obsolete as long as it can be reformatted for new text readers.
This is nice, of course, but the other thing about eBooks that has me really excited is the accounting. This is the big thing that drives me wild about books as software artifacts instead of printed artifacts: I get paid on time. Even if it isn’t much, I know what I am owed before it arrives and when I will get paid, and it even magically arrives on time without angry letters, or fuming or moaning or begging or threatening… It just arrives. On time. No reserve against returns. No mysterious accounting puzzles to figure out every six months, because I can watch the sales happen daily, in near real time, myself, and I know exactly what to expect when it arrives. My god, man, that is just glorious. I’ve been freelancing for nearly eight years, in various ways, and I can honestly say the only time I’ve ever worked for such a reliable payer was when I was doing pity projects for my parents who didn’t want me to starve and invented work for me a few times. There has been some serious grumbling under the surface of the public internet about late payments, slow payments, and worse. A name or two have even been named openly. I won’t go into detail, because it’s out there if you just google it or scan backwards in time through the SFWA website. Anyway, getting paid is one of the things that freelance writers always need to think about when they are dealing with clients and publishers. (One time, with this one client, it took me almost two years to get about 20 dollars in cab fare reimbursed. Long story. Also, they still owe me money.)
Without consignment contracts, and with accounting systems that pay on time, without any reserves or returns, the future of publishing has never been brighter. This could be the end of the death spiral, right before our eyes.
Go back in time to a few Year’s Best anthologies. For every Gene Wolfe and Ursula LeGuin there’s two or three people who haven’t been doing anything, lately, and probably don’t even register as names though they were once good enough to be in a Year’s Best Antho. They wrote good books, too. They could have been great authors. Instead, they wrote a few books and disappeared into the bowels of the industry, devoured in all likelihood by the death spiral or the grind of living from one shrinking advance to another. eBooks have the power to alleviate the career-ending things like the death spiral, the late payments, and the miserably poor accounting.
Even publishers will be better positioned to meet their contractual obligations and pay authors when they don’t have to worry about returns and the accounting foibles that come from complex consignment arrangements. They’re still experiencing growing pains, if rumors are to be believed, but these pains can be overcome.
This is the thing about digital publishing that really excites me: The real question in digital rights negotiations during contract negotiations is time. How long will the publisher hold digital rights before they revert back to the author? Publishers want them a long time, probably forever, because that’s where the money is in digital publishing. Instead of hares racing against a death spiral to move books, we can all be tortoises doing sustainable marketing activity that may not lead to huge, immediate sales, but can realistically and reliably drum up sales (or not) over the course of years. It’s the end of the death spiral. There’s no need for anyone to hurry or act rashly shoving buttons and flyers at unsuspecting bystanders in bookstores and conventions. We all have the time to try out different things and see what works for us, or if anything works for us at all. If we fail, we have time to try again. We don’t have to be assholes trying to convince our family members and friends to pre-order things the moment the sales page appears on the Amazon website.
Unless, of course, these things work for us and we can do them without being obnoxious.
Basically, author self-marketing is actually not as important as you’d think. It’s necessary only to continue writing, and to find the level of activity that works for you.
The accounting on software files is so much better than the accounting on consignment artifacts, in particular, when you work directly with Amazon, Smashwords and Nook. (It has been rumored to be a different story when dealing with eBooks through a publisher… I’ll leave that one to Rusch.)
Publishers are wonderful to have, but they aren’t perfect. Ask me in private sometime, at a convention, and I’ll tell you all the funny business I’ve encountered even with just two books out these last three years and three more coming. Contract wording matters. A lot. Even when people agree to terms, and sign based on the agreed upon terms, contract boilerplate can throw a massive wrench in the gears from which there is no recovery. Publishers do sometimes behave badly because it is convenient and profitable to do so, or because it is convenient and easy to overlook. People are operating in the best interest of their own careers, instead of the authors’ careers. Sure, there are good people out there doing right by their clients and partners. There are also about as many bad people who abuse the trust of their clients, whether knowingly or obliviously.
As an established author who has worked with two literary agencies, had huge distribution through Random House, strong support from the midsize Indie house with Nightshade, and a keystone presence with up-and-coming Indie Apex, and as someone who has dabbling in eBooks alone, I feel like my perspective on this whole thing is a pretty good one. Please correct me if I’ve said anything that feels crazy, or zany, or inaccurate. I’m still learning, too. Change is happening fast enough that it is hard to keep up with it while writing and working. Inform me. Where have I whiffed things?
Anyway, at this point in time, with what I’ve experienced and what I know, I feel like there are projects that I’d rather do with a publisher and projects I’d rather do without one. There are projects that benefit from the things a publisher brings to the table, which are not small things in the slightest, and things that will matter a great deal in years to come, when the larger publishing houses can stand up against Amazon and eventually win. But, the slush pile will fade into the digital stacks. There will be more indie authors than ever before, because that is where we will have to be to publish our early books, find an audience, and establish ourselves on the scale worthy of the attention of publishers who need slam dunks to stay in business until the new business models necessary in the changing digital now have established into profitable patterns.
Like in the music biz, the best stuff, the most interesting stuff, will probably not come from major labels from now on. The Gillian Welches and Amanda Palmers and Jonathan Coultons of the world, in all their varieties and outliers and energies and vandalisms, will make a conscious decision to cross over into the studio system, or not, and the best of the bunch will probably be too busy at their art and their own particular vision to bother with major label contract negotiations and the over-polishing of distinctive soundwaves into marketable commodities, when these same creators do just fine on their own in control of their product, tours, digital distribution, and workload. Right now, today, publishing is in the early days of a business that will be more like the music industry and less like publishing as we have known it for the last century.
Right now, if I had a project that I was doing that I believed would sell less than 10000 copies, in the best of circumstances, I would do it myself as an eBook. (In fact, I think I just did that, last week. There’s a giveaway of a sample around here somewhere. It’s probably not your thing, because it is a strange thing, but it might be your thing, and I hope it is interesting to you even if it is not a plucky steampunk adventure yarn which is your favorite thing right now, or you do not want the whole of this thing after reading some of it.) Also, I continue to work very hard to fulfill my publishing contracts, with a trilogy emerging from Nightshade, selling pretty well, and in need of at least one more book under the terms of that contract, not to mention the launch of Apex books with national distribution and my novel MAZE a proud part of that launch next year. I continue to pursue projects that could realistically acquire publishing contracts even in the narrowing market through my agent, with a lovely steampunk novel taking shape along side a murder mystery and a few other things too early to even mention, because these times are changing fast, but they are still slow to change and publishers are part of the now, and part of that future, still.
At the end of the day, if I want my books in libraries, on the shelf of stores for bookshelf browsers, and in the hands of the major reviewers, awards-nominations, and all that stuff that comes from the clout of major publishers who can (if I am careful during contract negotiations and my agent is careful and my legal adviser is careful) lead to great and successful outcomes in the future. At the end of the day, as well, when I want to minimize the drama in my life, and control the project, and protect my work from the homogenizing influence of too much unwanted editorial input and make sure that what I am doing is a work of art before it is anything else, I will probably do what film directors and producers and musicians have been doing for years since at least the 1970s: staying independent of the studio system, while hopping in and out of the system depending on the current project’s business and artistic goals.
There used to be one path to success. This is not true anymore. The same could be said of film and music at some point in the last thirty years.
Also, and the last thing I’ll say about the benefits of eBook self-publishing: Never before have authors had so much power to walk away from signing bad contracts.
I’ve signed one really bad contract, and I did it knowing it was bad, and believing I had no other choice to get my work out into the world in some meaningful way, on the scale that was being offered. My agent at the time (who is no longer my agent, or even working as an agent) advised me to sign it even though it was nutty, because I was a new author, and the distribution push was huge and the marketing push was huge and it was my chance to “break out” and make a name for myself as an author. (You might have realized this already, but I did not, in fact, do that much. I had some successes, but the publisher folded in a matter of months and all the hoopla and noise dissipated before I finished reading the press release that announced, to me, the end of my beloved imprint.)
Well, the contract stank. It’s a dense morass of legal nightmare speak. I actually got lucky when that publisher released me from it and folded. I did experience bad outcomes because of that contract, which I won’t talk about here, but I was hardly the only one involved, and it was a mess and continues to be a mess and nobody can really do anything about it. We’re just lucky it’s a small mess.
Today, I don’t have to sign a bad contract. I don’t, for a minute, believe there is only one way to succeed. I don’t, for a minute, feel like I need a publisher to achieve the sort of distribution that I need to achieve to be successful. I, as an author and creator, am more empowered than ever before to choose my contract and terms carefully. I don’t need to sign something that smells fishy. I can toe the line against a shameless rights grab. I can walk away, no matter what is offered to me, because an increasingly viable alternative exists.
I hope everyone takes advantage of that fact. If everyone does it together, we will all be doing our part for the bright digital future that is also the digital now.
It is everyone’s job, whether you knew you had a job or not, to protect content creators in the future and especially in the now of digital book culture. You could be empowering creators with your buying decisions, your contract terms, your negotiation tactics. You could be strip-mining creators, or allowing yourself to be strip-mined. Strip-mining is bad. Don’t do it. Everyone has to do their part to protect creators. That means, if you are a creator, toe the line and make your potential business partners remove bad contract nonsense or refuse to work with them. If you are a middleman, do what you can to treat creators justly with your contracts and negotiation tactics (many of you are doing this, despite the doomsaying above and kudos to you!). If you are a book buyer, try to do your part to deal with creators honestly, paying for content as you are able, and purchasing your content from places that treat creators justly.
Amazon is… for now. This may change faster than we can reject the new Terms of Service.
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