Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Right Business...Wrong Job?

All my life, I wanted to be in books; as Chip MacGregor so engagingly puts it, he wanted to be a “book guy,” and I was the female equivalent of that. I read a book about how books are put together when I was very young and thought, “Now, there’s the business to be in. How much better could it be than to be in the book business?” Deciding what aspect of “the book business” to be in was part of the fun, I suspect. Had I dreamed of a dusty little shop on a dusty little corner, I would probably have become an indie bookstore owner, happily peddling my latest finds…or I would have run a (decidedly cool) used bookstore somewhere in the hinterlands, like an acquaintance of ours did in Rogers Park. But I have no retail aspirations, in that sense—except to do my annual share to contribute to Barnes & Noble and Borders’ stock with a book-buying trip every few months. I did, and still do, want to write and sell novels; occasionally I actually do write one (!), and occasionally, I pitch some of those products to various Big Name Publishers Who Can Make My Day With One Phone Call…but so far, none of them has. (I may be one of the few authors you’ll ever know who actually got a phone call from a Harlequin editor to chat with me on why she wasn’t going to request more of my book, so I guess there’s a dubious claim to fame there. :-) But, I digress.) More than once, I have thought about (and still consider) becoming a formal, in-the-front-of-the-classroom writing teacher. I’ve taught writing workshops online, and I’ve done one-on-one coaching as well as tutoring English composition, so I do have a bit of an idea what that life might be like. A few things deter me from doing that right now…one of them being trying to write a resume that effectively sidesteps the “Master’s degree required” bit of the job description. I may be a master at many things written, but the degree I ain’t got. A bit of creativity, and I might be able to set that up yet. But when I got the chance to be a real, live Book Editor, I figured I had taken a giant step forward into nirvana. Didn’t even matter that I’d be editing nonfiction, rather than the novels I had dreamed of doing…because I’d made enough living off nonfiction in the ensuing years that I knew I could handle it competently, and I also knew it didn’t have to be the be-all and end-all of what I did with my writing talent. I’d have plenty of energy left “after hours” to be creative on my own…right? I’m here to tell you that that ain’t necessarily so. That issue, we’ve touched upon before, and my trying to get that aspect of things in order is a work in progress. But what I was muttering about yesterday, as I took my 3 PM laps in the warehouse, was something I find myself feeling frequently after we have one of our periodic meetings about The Publishing Business and Where It’s Going. We had another one of those yesterday, over lunch, when staff who had attended the O’Reilly “Tools of Change” conference reported back on what they’d heard, what they’d learned, and the directions publishing was going to go…whether we all liked it or not. I don’t mean for that to sound negative—after all, I’m on board with lots of elements of “Web 2.0.” I was one of the few people in the room (if not the only one) who had heard of Library Thing before that presentation yesterday; and I’m also one of the few people in the company who blogs with regularity. But what I found distressing was the concept that content isn’t king anymore…what people do with the content, how they get at it, how they manipulate it, paste it together, chunk it, and how much of it they can get for free, is. This is distressing not because people aren’t reading, in some cases a lot; they are. But because to me, these proclamations only emphasize the rapidly-degrading attitude of people toward the folks who create that content in the first place. Yes, the “free content” is almost always used to entice people to buy—putting aside for the moment the web-wise but morally-deficient kids who will gladly hack into any site so they can get everything possible for nothing. But apart from hackers and other crooks, in the context of how this “new approach to content” affects authors, the one thing I heard that disturbed me more than anything else was a comment along the lines of what new demands or expectations publishers might have of authors. Apparently, in a nutshell, word on the street is that it’s “ask for the moon” time when they sit down with authors or authors’ representatives to talk about “rights;” increasingly often, authors come to the table ready to effectively “give away the store” to have their content “out there.” (Sounds suspiciously like the self-publishing business, only worse.) Publishing’s days of producing great work, finishing it, and sending it on its way are fast coming to an end; today, it’s all about “sharing content” and “giving the consumer what he/she wants.” All good ideas—since that makes everybody happy, right? The only problem was, I heard nary a whisper about the artist’s compensation for all this new, exciting use of content. In some circles, the author/artist who asks about such things is even presented as a backward, ignorant bit player who “just doesn’t know how to adapt.” In this brave new publishing world, that’s a death knell for one’s career, because authors who aren’t as “fussy” are out there…and those authors, and what they produce, represent a “fabulous opportunity.” I heard a lot of talk about authors’ blogs, self-promotion, and being “willing” to “work with a publisher” to “optimize revenue streams.” What I didn’t hear was any equivalent enthusiasm about how the authors would share in said revenue streams. And that was chilling. It points up, yet again, the obvious—something I can forget about most of the time when we all seem to be “on the same page”—which is, as long as I sit on this side of the desk, in some ways I’m not part of the solution, I’m part of the problem. When I see what I do from an author’s point of view, something as inherent to me as breathing, I don’t always like what I see. It’s a depressing state of affairs to find yourself feeling like you’re in the right business, but wearing the wrong “hat.” It tends to make you mutter to yourself during an afternoon walk. Other than muttering, though, I’m not at all sure what I can do…and that’s a little disheartening, to say the least. Thoughts? Janny

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice blog, good writing. Keep up the good work!

Donna Alice said...

Finally, time to get back into reading blogs! I have to say after coming back from the "world of contests" (I judged an RWA contest AND have entered four contests--non-RWA since early FEb.) that I haven't given much thought to the brave new world of writing. I know there are people who push e-books and pageless books, etc. but I'd like to believe that books will never go out of style. Or is that naive?

Deb said...

I don't think it's naive at all. Consider the fact that a 1,000 year old manuscript still has pages, covers and letters, to be read in the same way you might read a mass market paperback today...

That doesn't mean there won't be a spot for e-books. However, we e-book authors make a MUCH bigger percentage on each book sold, than print authors do. I don't see us wimping out and accepting a lesser amount when, after all, we do the bulk of the work. In e-publishing, we do the lion's share. We can adapt--we've already done so for the most part. We can play on the same team as the publisher--most of us already do.

We are not, however, doormats here to be utilized as such. It might be as well for pubs to recognize we are not out here writing for the publisher's increased profit--we are writing primarily for readers.

Verification word is 'ODNIGOK ', pretty much my reaction to the whole blog entry...

Janny said...

Actually, the distress I'm feeling isn't about the difference between e-pubbing and print pubbing, or any concern with technology per se. It's the approach that publishers want to take--e-pubs or otherwise--in terms of how many times, and in what forms, they want to use your material without paying further for it. In most "traditional" publishing contracts, you negotiate separate payments for electronic duplication, for audio books, for promotional items (the mug, the T-shirt), serialization (which the current "chunking" that eHarlequin is doing could certainly be considered to be part of), and other uses. But the brave new world of publishing doesn't mention any additional payments for these things once they've converted the material to the Web--and if it originates there in the first place, it's subject to indeterminate copying, cutting, pasting, etc., most of which can be done by users for free on the theory that the "bits and pieces" they get will entice them to buy whole books. But none of those "bits and pieces" are compensated to the authors, or at least I've heard nothing about any proposed royalty system for same.

So, T2, you could have SOMETHING BORROWED be excerpted on a web site (serialization)...for no extra payment. The publisher could "chunk" chapters to readers on a mass e-mail list...for no additional payment. The publisher could animate your characters in a mini-film on the site...for no extra payment. It's the same fight the WGA just got done pushing in Hollywood, but because we don't write for TV or film, many of us are totally unaware that these plans are in the works for content. They're not our stories anymore...they're simply CONTENT, like any other CONTENT, and the publishers are listening way more to the public--even the public that's doing nothing but downloading free content--than they are thinking about compensating the providers of said content.

That's what I find chilling. Even more so when there doesn't seem to be a voice within the publishing company that is ready to recognize that all these "options" and "opportunities" they're so happy with are actually multiple uses of an author's work that are supposed to be paid for as such.

And if we don't watch 'em like hawks in this relatively early stage of the game, we'll wake up one morning, click on a publisher's website that we don't even know, and see our material staring us in the face...without attribution, and certainly without payment.

It's another really, REALLY good reason to have a really, REALLY good agent who is ahead of the game on these things. For the rest of us, it's more than a little depressing...

Hope this clarifies what I was about.

Janny

Deb said...

It does provide more clarity. There have already been websites discovered who pirate copyrighted e-published material. Sadly, I think the most that can be done is a "cease and desist" letter, and that assumes we've discovered them all. To date, I have never heard that a publisher discovered one of these piracy sites, and alerted their contracted author of it.

Janny said...

Pirated material is one thing...but when the publishers are allowed to "pirate" their own stuff (read: yours) and do with it what they want, treating writers as if all contracts are work-for-hire...that's setting a really, really dangerous precedent. The horse may have already left the barn, but if we become aware that it's running around out there, this at least gives us the chance to hire the local horse whisperer and get that nag back under control.

:-)

Janny