Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How writing is a mirror of what is happening throughout society.

by Rick Blechta

It seems as if every day brings a new report of some corporation or other shuttering factories or closing down altogether. “The jobs have are all being moved to [enter third world country name here],” as if these things happen by accident. It’s almost like “Honest! We came in Monday morning and all the jobs had gone to China. We have no idea how that happened! When we locked the doors on Friday all the jobs were here. Then this morning, poof! Every single job (except mine, of course) has moved out of the country.”

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.
The real changes in publishing, though, have gone by with fairly a whimper.

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.


Mar Preston said...

This is so bleak and yet every word has the ring of truth. I wonder if you would mind, Rick, if I shared the bulleted points on my website, of course attributing it and linking it here.

This is just too good not to share.

Rick Blechta said...


It seems the paradigm for Western society has tilted completely to "I'm going to get what I can and screw everyone else." To be realistic, mankind has always had this tendency, but now it's completely entrenched in the business world. It's no surprise that some publishers have fallen into this camp. Sad, but that's the way it is.

Thanks for commenting, and of course, please, use it if you want to. Thanks for the compliment!


Diana R. Chambers said...

Thoughtful piece, Rick. All I can say is few people go into writing for the money. Hence the starving artist cliché. We do what we can to do what we love. (I'm still retelling your story from our '06 LCC setting/place panel about learning in Vienna of the place where bodies wash ashore from the Danube! That was for your novel, Cemetery of the Nameless.) See you at Bcon-Toronto in a couple of years, if not before:-)

Rick Blechta said...

You're right, Diana. We'd have to be incredibly stupid or masochistic to a ridiculous degree if we stayed in this business thinking we'd make money. But I think I'm safe in saying that writers start in the hope that they'll get published and make money, unaware that the deck is pretty well stacked against them.

We had a government here in Ontario that faced huge challenges when the stock market had that horrible slump in the '90s. They would have had to let go of thousands of public servants, nurses, teachers, you name it. In order to avoid that, they proposed a novel solution: everyone take off a number of unpaid days spread out over the year so the government wouldn't have to layoff all those people. In other words, everyone would take some small bit of the pain so all could hold on to their jobs. I considered it a very mature approach – and quite innovative.

The reaction was very telling. This was a left-leaning government (New Democratic Party) and was supported by unions that went completely ballistic when the news was announced. The people on the right who opposed this government made great political hay out of it, and next election, the NDP was tossed out on its ear.

I was stunned how selfish everybody had been. Sure, it wasn't fun to forego that money, but I understood that by everyone standing together, we would all be better off in the end.

This is all a long way of saying that if the publishing business (like any other) had the best intentions for everyone in mind, we'd all be better off. There are some publishers that are using the changed paradigms of employment and lower monetary expectations to pull in more for themselves. Some get it. Some don't. I salute those who do the right thing and there are many fine examples. But there are also the sharks who, if they could, would outsource all their writing purchases to third world countries in order to make more money.

It's very kind of you to remember my story. I owe so much to those two cops in Vienna for telling me about the Cemetery of the Nameless. First of all, I got a great title for my novel!