We need to talk about…
Over the past year, something has been bothering me. It’s not something that has affected me directly, but it is affecting an increasing number of my friends. I need to be very careful about this blog post and I need to state up front that some of this post is speculation, because I don’t want an army of corporate lawyers descending on my arse. So, I am not going to name any names and I will make very clear what the facts seem to be and my speculation on what this might mean.
In the middle of 2013 a very well respected small press changed hands. The original owner was highly regarded within the community, was trusted and respected. I actually dealt with him briefly before Moonstruck came out because he wanted the High Moor series, although I eventually walked away from the deal. This, it seems, was the best thing I could possibly have done because not only did the proceeds from Moonstruck allow me to expand Horrific Tales Publishing, but because of what happened with this press next.
The word on the internet was that this press had been purchased by a former employee of one of the Big 5. This person had years of experience behind him and the sort of contact network that most small presses could only dream of. This person brought in other seasoned business people. And they started buying up lots and lots of small press and self published titles. Lots. In fact, they seemed to be grabbing every title they could get their hands on. Authors were being offered multiple book contracts, with even single titles being expanded into trilogies at the very least. An absolute fuckload of money was being thrown at the business, and lots of authors were very happy.
This must have been a good thing. Right?
I have my doubts on this score. I’ll explain why.
I started hearing grumbles about the terms of the contracts. There were no reversion clauses in some contracts, and in others little more than a meaningless “out of print” clause that would never be fulfilled. If an author didn’t like working with them, then they were basically screwed because there was no way to EVER get the book back because they signed away their book for the length of copyright. That means its theirs for 70 years after the author dies. Royalty rates were good, and some authors got advances, but increasingly it seemed that the risk was being pushed directly onto the author. Advances got smaller and then vanished all together. Release dates were nebulous and, in some instances, were YEARS in the future. However, the two worst problems were the “exclusivity” clause which stated that authors were not even allowed to TALK to anyone else about other projects outside of the ones they were contracted for. The authors had to give this press first refusal on EVERY project that they were even considering going forward. And worst of all, they did a massive, and I mean MASSIVE rights grab. All of them, infact. Every single right associated with the book in any format was licensed to this press for the length of copyright. Foreign translation, multimedia and even dramatic rights. Yeah, they paid a royalty on the “profits” but anyone who has ever had anything to do with book to movie deals will tell you that you should never agree to deals like that because companies have all sorts of ways of showing something never makes a profit on paper. The old $1000 per paperclip scenario.
It should then come as no surprise that this press recently announced a “movie” arm. Hell, they didn’t have to pay options on titles, or pay out the usual rate for licensing because they already owned the licences on hundreds of titles. The standard deal on a movie adaptation of a novel is that the author would get 2.5% of the total budget, usually capped at something like 100k. This way, the new “movie” arm would potentially never have to pay the authors a penny.
So – the net result of this was that a whole lot of self published authors in the horror, sci-fi and fantasy genre were no longer self publishing. They were producing lots and lots of books for a press that would then release those books at some point in the next couple of years. Probably, although there was no guarantee in the contracts. Which meant that a lot of the mid list self pubbed horror authors were not going to have any new stuff coming out for the foreseeable future.
Then something else happened. The press started taking on editors. Some of the freelance editors who the more successful self pubbed authors sent their stuff to were now tied up working for this press – often for no money up front and for a percentage of the titles earnings.
Rumours began to circulate – like the ex Big 5 employee who bought the company may not have been quite as “ex” as people thought. Especially when it became apparent that the cream of this presses books were being licensed to that Big 5 company, although in those circumstances the terms given to the authors did not change because they had given away all licensing rights.
Now, this is where I am going to start speculating, but it seems to me that if, for example, a big company wants to kill off self publishing in a particular genre, or at least hamstring it, then one fairly effective way of doing this would be to remove all of the authors from the pool in the short term, and then start taking the editors that they use out of the picture. This would, in essence, get rid of many who “did it properly” and prevent the others from utilising the editorial resources, therefore creating a gap in the quality of the product. And because a lot of this is being done on a royalty only basis, there is very little financial risk to the company involved. They can just chuck these books into limbo, maybe release them after a while and hey, if they make money then great. If not, they only really lost the price of the cover art and the book formatting. Certainly, on the titles that have come out from this press this year, I have not seen much in the way of advertising, and these books Amazon sales ranks are not really anything to shout about at all.
This is, of course, pure speculation. The press in question may have nothing but honourable intentions and a really shitty contract, but something about this whole set up sets my spider sense off in a big way. It’s like a two day old corpse. There is a bit of a smell, but it’s not quite gone rotten yet. At the very least I will say this. Don’t allow your enthusiasm for being a published author mean that you will sign any contract. These things should be up for negotiation and if they are not, or not to the extent that you feel comfortable with, then you should never, ever be afraid to turn your back and walk away. And while some of the early authors were able to negotiate some of these terms out, apparently the press have now said that it is not their “policy” to negotiate these terms any more. If you have a shred of common sense, your policy should be to tell companies like that to go and fuck themselves.
Just my opinion, of course 😉