What’s Next for Authors United?

Authors United has been spectacularly unsuccessful in its supposed mission to get Amazon and Hachette to agree a deal.

By contrast, Simon & Schuster was able to agree a deal in just three weeks – without the intervention of Douglas Preston’s group.

To be fair, Authors United has been very good at one thing: getting media attention.

Perhaps it’s time for Douglas Preston to widen the aims of the group and start campaigning on issues which actually matter.

It would be great if Authors United could get the media to focus on any of these problems. Alternatively, Authors United could continue to focus on propping up a broken system which only rewards those at the very top (like Douglas Preston, surprisingly).

1. Diversity in Publishing 

Publishing is very white and very middle class. And, at the upper echelons, often very male too. One of the many knock on effects of this is that traditionally published books tend to be very white and very middle class. Publishing claims to want more diverse books from more diverse voices, but I don’t think that’s going to happen until more people from diverse backgrounds are representing authors and acquiring books.

2. One-sided Contracts 

Contracts offered by publishers can contain awful clauses. Option clauses which unfairly tie authors’ hands. Reversion clauses which are meaningless in a POD/digital world where books never go out of print. And non-compete clauses which can pointlessly damage a writer’s career.

Some say that a good agent will negotiate those out. My experience of talking to fellow writers is that it’s often the case that even good agents can fail to negotiate these out because they don’t want to damage their relationship with the publisher. But, really, these clauses should form no part of any boilerplate. Agents shouldn’t have to negotiate them out because they shouldn’t be there in the first place. And the upsurge in digital-first imprints taking unagented submissions means this is a growing problem.

3. DRM 

It doesn’t work at all in mitigating piracy, and only serves to antagonize legal, paying customers. And it ties publishers’ hands when it comes to things like bundling, selling direct, or letting authors give free copies to reviewers. Tor has been operating for over two years without DRM and has said it has seen no increase in piracy whatsoever. There is no good reason to keep DRM, and its retention is purely down to misplaced fears and publishers’ innate inertia.

4. E-book Royalty Rates

Authors like Douglas Preston, Scott Turow, and James Patterson don’t need to care about this issue because those at the top get huge advances which aren’t expected to earn out. In other words, royalty rates are largely irrelevant for them.

But these authors could perhaps start thinking of writers lower down the food chain, stuck on e-book royalty rates of 25%. Well, that’s 25% of net, which is 17.5% of list price. Actually, that’s 14.9% after the agent takes their cut. And all that’s assuming the publisher plays no games with the definition of “net.”

Publishers claim they can’t afford it because publishing is a low margin business. But $120bn worth of books are sold around the world every year, so I respectfully suggest that there is enough cash sloshing around to pay authors fairly. Perhaps if publishers didn’t engage in things like price-fixing – which will end up costing them hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees, compliance procedures, settlements, and fines – there might be a little more left over to pay authors.

5. Actual Boycotts 

Unlike the faux boycott claimed by Preston’s group, many authors out there are suffering from actual boycotts. Most booksellers won’t stock any books published by Amazon. Some won’t even stock self-published books that have been printed – not published – by CreateSpace, an Amazon subsidiary. And all self-publishers have been locked out of WH Smith’s e-bookstore in the UK for over a year, since Eroticagate.

6. Author Exploitation

The most unwelcome development in the last few years has been the huge increase in author exploitation. What’s particularly distasteful about this phenomenon is that the most predatory companies are not the fly-by-night operations of the past, but huge corporations exploiting writers on a massive scale. Oh and they are owned and operated by traditional publishers, happy to profit from this crap.

Penguin Random House bought Author Solutions two years ago and, instead of cleaning house, it has aggressively expanded its scammy operations. HarperCollins, Harlequin, Simon & Schuster, and Hay House are just some of the traditional publishers with exploitative vanity press operations being run on their behalf by Author Solutions. This is completely unacceptable. And instead of getting worked up about what Amazon might do in the future, I respectfully suggest that you should focus on what publishers are doing right now to authors.

Authors United – The Future

There’s an impression out there that Authors United is an out-of-touch, elitist, entitled group that doesn’t genuinely care for the plight of writers, and is reflexively defending publishers because the current system has been very good to the small circle leading the group.

(Full disclosure: that’s an impression I hold. I have said all those things. And I believe them too.)

But maybe that impression is incorrect. Maybe it’s unfair when people (like me!) paint you as a pro-publisher organization. Prove me wrong. Take up any of these issues – preferably all of them. Use your extensive media contacts to actually make things better for the average writer.

You have proven that you have the power to get widespread media attention. Maybe it’s time to use that power to do something useful.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

54 Replies to “What’s Next for Authors United?”

  1. Thanks again, David. I enjoy your blogs and the way you provoke discussion among commenting writers debating with you and expressing their very different opinions. But somehow, I find I believe you and your research.

  2. David, The elite of AU will not champion these causes, because to do so would be against their interests. They made their bundle with the world as it is. Why should they want to change?

    1. Exactly. Why rock the boat when they’re doing very nicely, thank you? As Private Eye would say: “Trebles all round”.

    1. Oh well that is good news. Three titles is a start. I wonder what dungeon the rest of them are in.

      Do you know if this is widespread (i.e. are most/all indies back in WHSmith?) And do you know when this happened?

      1. I only discovered this via an unrelated discussion on kboards after reading your article. It seems hit and miss maybe WH Smiths are reading them book by book and so going for big sellers first. I am not back there and others on kboards who sell a lot of non-erotica are also still missing.

      2. I searched for my books and my wife, Gina Lake’s, books, and not one of our 25 titles shows up in search results. So I would say it is still an isolated phenomenon.

  3. David,

    In Joe’s posts where Lee Child responded, I mentioned advances that weren’t meant to be earned out. Lee responded by saying that he “earned out [his] advances as quickly as possible.”

    I’ve heard the “Huge Advances Instead of Higher Royalties” bit from several places (including Joe, you, and Mike Shatzkin) so I’m having trouble justifying Lee’s words with those statements.

    Any thoughts?

    1. His situation might be different, and it’s not clear from what you quoted above whether earning out his advances as quickly as possible was the aim, or the actuality.

      In any event, the situation between the top-tier writers and the average writer is different in more aspects than royalties/advances. The top selling writers have very different arrangements. They may have things like an escalator which gives them higher royalty rates (or bonuses) for hitting the NYT list, the USAT list, a certain position in the Kindle Store, or a certain amount of copies sold. It’s a different world, and one where the basic royalty rate of 17.5% just isn’t as important/applicable/relevant.

      Of course, royalty rates only come into play for the average writer if she can earn out too. But it’s a lot easier to repay a $10,000 advance if you are chipping away at it with a royalty rate of, say, 35% instead of 17.5%.

      Circling back to the original point, agent Andrew Wylie always says (possibly *somewhat* tongue-in-cheek) that if any of his authors earns out then he hasn’t done his job. In other words, he didn’t negotiate enough advance money upfront. It’s a totally different world to the average tradpubbing writer whose next contract is in danger if he doesn’t earn out. That’s essentially what I was getting at.

  4. Another great post, David. But doubtless it’ll fall on deaf ears like all the other posts by you and Konrath, Eisler, etc. People in such a lovely, warm and cozy room such as this lot sit in just pull the curtains on those out in the cold looking in . . . if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphores! It’s clear by now that they have not one jot of interest in the ‘ordinary’ author and never will have. The same goes for The Authors Guild — more than happy to take the subs, but not prepared to give value for them. Why does any normal, Joe Public, author continue to pay them?

  5. I thought each looked smug on their own but when you replicate them… It’s akin to walking into my local grocery store and seeing the 6 books by Patterson on the book rack of top 25 books. How has this scam lasted so long?

    1. It’s not a scam at all. His books happen to sell. People buy them and that’s why the stores stock them. If they didn’t sell the retailers would have something else in it’s place that would turnover more quickly.

      1. It doesn’t have to be argued that Patterson has particular skill at writing his kind of stories, or that he has a broad commercial appeal that sells. In terms of scam, I’m talking more of the actual infrastructure that would allow for 6 out of the top 25 books in my local grocery store chain to be from a single author, regardless of quality and merchantability. This kind of stranglehold on the market is what I’m talking about.

        There is a certain arrogance to the notion that ‘talent’ and ‘popularity’ alone have made these authors popular. And if the other meme is true, that the Big 5 have the power to orchestrate these commercial successes, then why can’t they do so on a much larger, more diverse scale? The answer is: they don’t really know why something sells big. But when it does, they are in a position of power to exploit it on a grand scale; and then devote all their future energy on repeating that success until the phenomenon dries up.

  6. While we agree on so much stuff, David, I think there is a difference between bringing value to the debate, instead of bringing a box of matches and a canister of petrol.

    Your first point makes some really generalised statements about publishing when it comes to class, colour of skin and sex. It almost seems tipped as a political exercise than one of really examining the publishing industry. Two of the big 5 publishing houses are headed by female CEOs. There is also a mix of nationalities and gender across the big 5 when it comes to the boardroom table. I’m not out to defend or attack tad publishing, just state the realities.

    I can’t help feeling this is another them-and-us salute, which isn’t always helpful to constructive debate. All it does is say; ‘here’s my tribe, where’s yours? 4pm outside in the school yard.’

    Is publishing elitist? Absolutely. Grossly so… but that’s less about class or gender, more about the fact that publishing is historically steeped in academia and transitioned in the 20th Century to the corporate world. Readers are readers – ordinary folk, out for a good read and stimulation. They couldn’t care less about Hachette or Amazon and what they are up to. Business is business, and more authors now are directly embracing publishing as a business.

    There is extraordinary diversity in publishing at the moment, whatever aspect you want to focus on at the moment – more translated works, more choice and competition.

    I’m always baffled why the indie community (self-publishing) feels an obligation to fix or address what it perceives as the wrongs and limitations of the traditional publishing industry. We’ve talked a great deal in the past few months about how authors can be hurt when two major corporations slog it out in negotiations, and yet we hear precious little of the self-publishing community’s own endemic problem of hurting authors with vanity publishers, poor services and sub standards. It’s time we addressed and fixed inherent injustices within the self-publishing community (stemming from author ignorance as well as predatory services) and what hurts authors most before deciding to hurl stones elsewhere.

    I’ve no reason to believe that traditional and alternative publishing paths can’t coexist now and in the future. This shouldn’t be a tem-or-us debate, our path or the highway; nor a we’re right and you have it all wrong.

    In a polarised world, all you see is the demons and devils in the next field, while ignoring the ones at your own doorstep.

    1. I don’t think it’s a non-issue Mick. There’s an ongoing campaign called We Need Diverse Books, and here’s an NPR article about same: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/08/20/341443632/to-achieve-diversity-in-publishing-a-difficult-dialogue-beats-silence

      A quote from same re Dawn Davis, the head of new S&S imprint:

      “Davis has the kind of credentials that go over well in publishing circles. A graduate of Stanford, she says she is used to being one of very few African-Americans in a white world. Davis says, ‘I think of the publishing world as primarily white, absolutely.'”

      In the UK, a recent report entitled Diversity In Publishing showed that while 28.8% of the working population of London were from black or minority ethnic backgrounds, only 7.7% of those working in publishing were from a non-white background. And only 3% of senior managers. More on that here: http://equalityinpublishing.org.uk/recommended-reads/report-highlights-shocking-lack-of-diversity-in-publishing/

      And this really does filter down into the kinds of books that are traditionally published. Here’s PW on a panel regarding diversity in publishing: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/64435-pw-panel-warns-industry-lack-of-diversity-threatens-publishing.html

      Note that while 36% of the US population identifies as a person of color, only 10% of US tradpubbed children’s books feature “content targeting minority readers.” And apparently those ratios have remained largely unchanged for the past two decades.

      As to your other point, I don’t consider vanity publishing a problem for the self-publishing community exclusively. These companies are owned and operated by traditional publishers, and the self-publishing community has been very vocal about same (as opposed to many in the traditional publishing community).

      But it’s all one industry really. I don’t think it’s out of bounds for me to talk about Hachette or a literary agent to talk about things that self-publishers are doing.

      I can’t speak for anyone else, but this post explains my motivations for blogging about this stuff: https://davidgaughran.com/2014/10/03/building-a-better-industry/

      1. Ah, David, I’m not saying there should not be diverity in the industry, but you are focussing on one industry for ridicule without accepting that this is one microcosm of society in general.

        As regards vanity publishers – you and I have been around the block a fair few times. Vanity publishing is not the ill of the traditional publishing industry. You almost seem to be suggesting that. Sure, we have the vanity temptress of the world jumping into bed with several big publishersr over the past decade, but ASI is not vanity publishing of itself.

        Believe me, over decades, companies like Minerva, Excallibur, Arena (UK), Vantage Press, PublishAmerica, Raider, Dorrance, (the list goes on) have done more damage to authors combined than ASI, and none of those companies are in any way connected with trad publishers.

        Your are right, though, that some traditional publishers see self-publishing as a commercial boon to exploit for profit – it’s what I call the Self-Publishing Honeypot. And there are too many companies with their snouts in the trough for all the wrong reasons.

        But there are trad publishers reaching out to the self-publishing community in a very healthy way and we don’t seem to easily acknowledge that. MacMillan and Faber have not slept with the temptress. They both have very author-focussed programs. Just look at the Faber Academy and how one big publisher is going about developing the future generation of writers, whatever their chosen publishing path.

        We’ve got to get away from this polarisation of the industry – of demons and angels, and nothing exists in between. There is a hell of a lot going on in between the tracks we shouldn’t miss. The greatest successes in the self-pub community we celebrate happen because authors become professional and cross this seeming divide – both ways. Look at what Unbound achieved, an alternative method of publishing via crowdsourced publishing getting onto their author onto the Booker shortlist this year. We heard so little about this (and maybe that’s not a bad thing, because it should be about the book, not the process of publication).Too often we get stuck in a rut and bitch about what is bad about publishing in general, and we miss the small but significant changes that arte happening. This isn’t just about the self-pub community giving and the trad pubs only taking.

      2. I think we’re at cross-purposes unnecessarily.

        I agree that there are worse companies out there than Author Solutions. I focus on them because of the sheer scale. PublishAmerica were truly awful, but Author Solutions operates on a different level numbers-wise.

        Regarding traditional publishers, you know as well as me that the big change in this area in the last five years is traditional publishers moving into it. There were very clear lines before between vanity publishing, self-publishing, and what we now call traditional publishing. But those lines have been blurred repeatedly from 2009, starting with Harlequin partnering with ASI right up to the Penguin purchase and S&S launching a white label imprint.

        I think that blurring is deliberate, and designed to ensnare unsuspecting writers. And I think the likes of Penguin have helped to legitimize ASI – just being able to say “A Penguin Company” on their logo is enough to hoodwink some, let alone the sly dangling of the (unrealistic) prospect of contract with a large publisher.

        And I think these publishers should be called to account for this behavior. I know you feel the same about that because you’ve been covering these guys for much longer than I have.

        The point of this post is to highlight some of the issues that Authors United – an advocacy group which purports to represent authors – remains silent on. I suggest that’s because they don’t really care about the issues the average writer has to deal with. But I’m very happy to be proven wrong.

        I’d love to see Authors United campaign for higher digital royalty rates, or for the reform of Author Solutions. But to say I’d be surprised would be an understatement.

      3. I’m at the Ninc conference, and someone mentioned Weenie Diversity, and some of us were sort of shocked. 🙂

    2. I think you are right Mick. I recall one indie author recommending substantially increasing the price of a book before discounting it. Now that’s immoral and perhaps illegal. I appreciate David’s continued exposure of the ungodly Penguin/ author solutions alliance because the Devil has reserved a special place in Hell for Penguin over that one. But the Big 5, Amazon and indies are all capable of reprehensible behavior Indies should check the quicksand under their feet on their high moral ground.

    3. I have no problems with using DRM still to this day. I don’t think it’s a barrier to anything I buy. Of course anybody can crack a DRM code but it doesn’t mean everybody will try to do so. Some people can barely use an e-reader let alone a computer. If you own a Kindle, what’s the problem with downloading a book with Kindle’s DRM….same for iBooks, etc… It has absolutely prevented the problems that the music industry faced with piracy.

      1. Hi Stephen. I think you have it backwards. There are a couple of issues tangled up here which I’ll try and address separately.

        1. DRM was used by the music industry. It didn’t prevent piracy. DRM was pretty much dropped by the music industry as far back as 2007… because it didn’t work.

        2. The reason why piracy has effected the music biz much more than publishing is a simple one: when MP3s took off among consumers there was no legal way to buy/consume most music. iTunes didn’t exist yet. Amazon wasn’t selling MP3s. YouTube didn’t exist, and neither did Spotify. The few places where you could legally buy MP3s were (a) way overpriced and (b) not selling individual tracks (which is what consumers wanted – as has been proved since by buying patterns completely shifting from albums to single tracks). So people used Napster instead. In the publishing world, the Kindle Store was in place (with loads of content) well before e-reading became mainstream. And publishers should thank their lucky stars.

        3. DRM is most definitely a barrier and this will become more apparent over the next few years as players exit this arena. We’re seeing it already with former Sony customers. The problem is simple: if I was an early adopter who bought a Sony device, then decided to switch to a Kindle when they exited the market, I would have had a rude surprise: the thousands of books I purchased would have been locked to that Sony device and I couldn’t bring them with me. What do customers do in that situation? Turn to piracy.

        In summary, DRM doesn’t work. And it could be argued that it actually makes the problem worse.

      2. David,
        I would think that most of the piracy occurred because of sites like Napster and others. DRM was not the issue that caused it. It was available for free on Napster and it was as simple as 1-2-3 to get illegally downloaded music, so people did it. You could always have bought a cd and ripped it to your music player on your computer but people chose to download it illegally instead.

    4. Thank you for a reasonable comment. Most of the articles I see mentioned here are designed to just get people riled up for very little reason.
      As far as diversity, our Company is probably 75% women. Our first President, Roberta Grossman was probably the first female President in Publishing in 1974. We were responsible for bring African-American romances to the general public over 15 years ago with a program entirely written by authors of color. Publishers hire people based on their qualifications. I don’t know of any publishers that isn’t an equal opportunity employer.
      And I’m so tired of the Hachette/Amazon discussion already….leave them alone…they’ll work out their differences eventually.

      1. Telling the truth as David sees it, and providing 6 key problem areas (in which diversity was merely first), is not ‘designed to just get people riled up for very little reason;’ it’s rather a call-to-action. That’s how I read most of David’s very precise and informed blog articles.

        Equal opportunity employer doesn’t mean **** when it comes to those who choose what authors to stand behind. Or are you just referring to non-executive level employees? It is obvious whose voices are being represented in the marketplace. Plus, I don’t believe David’s complaint is aimed at smaller publishing companies.

        Why not start with this ‘one microcosm of society,’ the Big 5, and clean up what has long been sullied.

      2. Varnbyde, I’m not sure where the diversity issue really exists in publishing. Are we talking about women or are we talking about race? There are many power women in executive positions at publishers, including Madeline McIntosh and Carolyn Reidy, to just name two. And I don’t know of a single publisher that wouldn’t hire somebody because of their race or religion. If you’re talking about authors, there are publishers that publish Af-Am books, Spanish books, etc….I think there’s actually a fair amount of diversity in terms of writers. And then the sales will determine which writers will rise to the top. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re black or white, the sales are going to determine who succeeds.

  7. I’ve been wondering what Authors United was FOR, other than keeping a status quo that favors them. Actually, they’re FOR themselves. It’s amazing how out of touch most of them are with the realities of publishing.

    1. Exactly. For everything they are supposedly for/against there is a correlating publisher behavior which is far, far worse which they have remained completely silent about. It’s basically the Authors Guild rebranded. Not surprising when you see some of the people at the helm (Preston, Turow, etc.).

  8. Why won’t Amazon distribute your book to libraries unless you publish under their ISBN? As a small publisher I am not concerned about DRM. I just untick the box and think “nice try”. It was good of Amazon to waive the $25 expanded distribution fee but why the library thing? BTW, I have never surrendered an ISBN for library access.

    1. I have no idea. It might be something to do with the distributor (Baker & Taylor, I think), but I really don’t know. Have you tried asking CreateSpace? Their customer support is usually pretty good.

      Even though I have a block of 100 free ISBNs, I take the CreateSpace one so I can get into those channels. No big deal. (For me, YMMV)

      1. I will ask Create Space. I can see why as an author, you make that decision David because your name on the book is your identifier, but for me as a publisher I see my ISBNs as my identifier. Even on my own books I prefer to pay the $8 for a BBB ISBN.

    2. Because every other person or company in publishing uses ISBNs to keep track of books and their inventory. Amazon is the only company that uses an ASIN for some reason.

      1. Because it’s a retailer mostly and has its own inventory system, like most big retailers?
        Because the ISBN is really expensive for small publishers and a monopoly and cumbersome and kind of useless these days when it’s easier just to type in the title?
        I don’t know, Steve. But you have to figure that Amazon is pretty lean as an operation, and if they’ve decided this is more efficient, they might be right. Certainly “efficiency” is not a word most of us would ever use for the previous publishing industry. 🙂

  9. Double-check your sources. Was it three weeks or three months for the deal with S. & S.? I have heard both. Not that it matters; the point is that it’s done! So, now, what’s the matter with you, Hachette?

    1. Business Insider (part-owned by Bezos) broke the story and reported an Amazon source as saying three weeks. They since amended the article to say “a source with knowledge of the situation” rather than an Amazon source, and the reference to three weeks was removed. (Although you can see the first comment under the piece makes reference to the three weeks also – which is exactly what I read when posting this.)

      It now says “Initial reports of Simon & Schuster’s negotiations with Amazon started back in July” which is probably where the three weeks/three months thing is coming from.

      My guess:

      S&S’s old contract doesn’t expire until December, but S&S probably got in touch with Amazon early to avoid a Hachette-like situation. But the actual proper negotiation period, aside from initial feelers, was probably around three weeks. It sounds like everything agreed very quickly once they actually got down to it.

      That Business Insider article again: “Simon & Schuster made its original offer and an agreement was reached after only a few tweaks by Amazon, according to our source.

      Article here: http://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-closes-multi-year-deal-with-simon-and-schuster-2014-10

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