February 27, 2009

Publishing Insanity

A major publisher has made headlines recently–not good ones. Layoffs, consolidations, good people with 50 years experience in publishing being put out of work. Times are hard, no question.

So it was with some surprise that I read the latest buzz–that this same company has shelled out two million dollars for Kathy Griffin’s autobiography.

Two million. $2,000,000.00 And probably half the people reading this are going, “Who the heck is Kathy Griffin?”

I imagine some of you know her. She’s the funny redhead whose reality TV show, MY LIFE ON THE D-LIST sort of lifted her off of the D List. She’s been quietly getting more and more noticed. I’m just not sure she’s been noticed to the tune of two-mil. I mean, maybe if she were writing a comedy. But a memoir? I don’t know. Seems like a bad business decision in a time when the company can’t afford one. But that’s only a mild irritation in the grander scheme of things. And I don’t blame Kathy at all for taking the deal. Shoot, I’d have taken it too. I just hope they can sell 2 million bucks worth of copies.

The real authors, meanwhile, the ones in the trenches, penning the novels that line the shelves of the bookstores day in and day out, usually for a few thousand bucks each, are seeing their incomes plummet faster than the stock market. Contracts aren’t being renewed, advances aren’t going up, sales are going down, internet piracy and used bookstores are eating into our incomes, and now we’ve got Jeff Bezos trying to hijack our audio rights without any payment to us, and half the online public accusing us of greediness for objecting.

Look, when an author creates a story, she gets paid by the publishers for the right to put it in print. They pay the author, then they charge you for it, and they make a profit. (Authors get around 56 cents a copy, out of the $6.99 cover price on most mass market paperbacks. 56 cents. Yes, that’s a fact. That’s ALL.) The AudioBook Companies pay us for the audio rights, record the book onto a CD, and they charge you for it and make a profit. The comic book or manga people do the same. The movie people do the same. And the electronic rights are purchased by companies in the same way. They put the text on a reading device, pay us a little, charge you more, and keep the profit.

But Bezos argues that his Kindle can do more than display the text of the book. It can also read it outloud. And even though he’s only paid the author for the text, he wants to use the audio part for free. And then charge you for it, and make a profit. So he’s still making money off it, but the author gets left out.

How is that fair?

People argue that it’s a good thing for visually impaired readers. Yes it is. But our contracts ALREADY grant rights to publishers of audio versions for the visually impaired for FREE. We’re already giving that away.

So Bezos isn’t doing this for the visually impaired. He’s doing this to make money off of work he didn’t do, while refusing to pay those who did do it. Namely–the authors.

Look, what we’re fighting for here is a matter of a few pennies per copy. But we need those pennies. This is how we make a living. How we pay our fuel bill, gas up our car, and send our kids to school.

Think how it would feel if you showed up for work tomorrow, and your boss told you that he’s decided to stop paying you for some of the work you do. Stuff you’ve always been paid for in the past, will now be done for free. He says that it’s for the greater good.

Would you feel that was fair, that work you used to be paid for was now something you were expected to do for free?

I don’t think you would. And I would agree with you.

So if you are one of those millions who would refuse to start doing part of your job for free, then you really shouldn’t expect me to do part of my job for free, just so you can hear your electronic box talk to you.

Maggie

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