Another trend is making do with less. Taxes are as high as ever but the services they pay for keep shrinking. Here in Toronto, we get far less garbage pick-up, door-to-door postal service is being phased out, we’re paying more and more for programs that used to be free, and our infrastructure is still falling about. That’s just on a local level.
Closer to home (for writers), we’re also being expected to do far more for far less. When the idea of advances against royalties was first adopted, it was put forward so that a writer could support him/herself while writing the book. It wasn’t free money by any stretch. If the book did reasonable business, the advance would be paid off and the company would begin handing out more royalties when it was. In the meantime, the writer didn’t have to try to juggle a day job and writing or risk starving to death along with their families. An advance against royalties was also a vote of confidence by the publisher that the book would do well enough. If they picked well and promoted well, they’d get their advance paid off.
In more recent times, the playing field has shifted dramatically and each shift has been away from writers. Here’s a partial list:
- The value of advances has plummeted. These days a writer is lucky to get even $5000. Quite often it can be under $1000. For most of us, that’s a few weeks of very frugal living, certainly not long enough to write a full-length book.
- Authors are expected to do the majority of their own promotion. Publicity departments even ask us to write ad copy. Ad copywriting is a very refined and arcane art. I don’t believe most authors are equipped or experienced enough to do it effectively. Why are publishers asking for this to be done when it’s in no ones’ best interest?
- Most authors have to organize their own live appearances, book signings, readings.
- We’re expected to have websites and pay the cost of them.
- We’re expected to blog (which is precisely why I and the rest of the Type M members are here).
- Need to travel for research? Pay for it yourself.
- Need to travel for an appearance? Get someone else to pay for it.
Here’s one: Advances given out for one book, may be paid for by the royalties of another. It works like this: Book 1 gets an advance of, say, $1000. It does okay but royalties on sales made only reach $500. Book 2 also gets a royalty advance of $1000 and is far more successful, paying back its advance quickly. The royalty statement comes in. What’s this? The author should have received $400 in royalties from Book 2, but they aren’t there. They’ve been applied to what was owing on Book 1. That is not the way the system was set up. Advances become a much more win/win situation for the publisher. (And don't get me started on the dodge that royalty periods are now a year because it’s “so expensive to calculate and produce royalty statements”. It’s done by computer. You must have bought the wrong software, bunky!)
Here’s another: Due to technology changes, books no longer go out of print. Even if they don’t have stock, a publisher can do a print run as low as 1 book at any time. Voila! We’re back in print. E-books serve the same function since they only exist as a file stored on a computer. Technically, the book is always in stock. So if the author wants the rights to their work back, good luck with that.
A third one (and this is a really troubling trend): An author gets a book deal for a new series. A clause in the contract states that the publisher gets the rights not only to the novel but also its characters. Huh? That way, if the author moves on, the publisher holds the rights to the characters so no new books in that series can be written by the creator for another publisher. The goal of this is two-fold: the publisher can hire another author to continue the series, or the publisher can demand cash to sell their rights to the character. Either way, the author is left in a terrible bind. This one is on the new-ish side and not all publishers are doing it, but my guess is that it will spread.
Agents can help with all of these things, but in the end, the publisher generally holds all the cards or has at least a very strong hand. Quite often (with new authors especially) it’s presented as “take it or leave it”, and many are desperate enough to get published that they take it.
We’re all in this together. Publishers have always claimed poverty. In some cases, it’s true, in others, not so much. Either way, we’ve been so conditioned to expect less and less, who can blame corporations and businesses by trying to use the paradigm shift in general society to their own advantage?
But there are a lot of good guy publishers out there, manned by people who get it. Here’s to the companies that resist temptation and are interested in everyone making money fairly. They seem to be few and far between – and are an endangered species themselves.