Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I Don't Deal With Amazon

Ah, just when I was thinking I ought to post something new, along came this e-mail from The Authors Guild. It addresses several issues that I'm following: developments in e-publishing, the unwillingness or inability of traditional publishers to change with changing times, and the stranglehold that Amazon has on the book business (see item 3, below). As I often tell people, I don't do business with Amazon. I don't shop with them, and I prefer that people buy my books from Barnes & Noble is a legitimate part of the book business, whereas Amazon, in my opinion, is parasitical.

Anyway, here is the e-mail from The Authors Guild, dated 7/26/2010:

Wylie-Amazon:  Publishers Have Largely Brought This on Themselves.

Thursday's announcement that the Wylie Agency, through its new publishing arm, Odyssey Editions, has a deal with Amazon to exclusively distribute at least 20 books in electronic form has shaken the industry. The 20 books include many important 20th century American works, including Invisible Man, Lolita, Portnoy's Complaint, Updike's Rabbit novels, The Adventures of Augie March, The Stories of John Cheever, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. These works are all in print and all, apparently, governed by old publishing contracts in which the authors didn't expressly grant electronic rights to the print publishers.

Random House, which holds the print rights to many of these titles, reacted Thursday afternoon by disputing that authors retained electronic rights to these books and saying that it would not do business with Wylie for English-language works "until this situation is resolved."

This is the most important development in electronic publishing since Apple entered the market offering publishers an "agency model" for selling e-books. Several aspects of the Wylie/Amazon/Random House entanglement merit comment:

1. Authors retain e-rights in standard publishing contracts unless they expressly grant those rights to the publisher, as we've consistently said and as a federal court held in Random House v. Rosetta Books. It's fine and proper for these authors and their heirs to exercise those rights, and we applaud the Wylie Agency for finding a way to make it happen.

2. That said, when an agency acts as publisher, serious potential conflicts of interest immediately come to mind. The most obvious of these is the possibility of self-dealing to the detriment of the agency's client, the author. If, by acting as publisher, the agency receives a higher percentage of the author's income than it would normally be entitled to, or if it receives other benefits that the author doesn't share in appropriately, then a conflict seems unavoidable.

Our understanding is that Wylie, as agent and publisher, is taking no more than it would as an agent. That is, Wylie/Odyssey is limiting its total compensation to its rate for commissions. If our understanding is correct, then our concerns about conflicts of interest are considerably eased. Other literary agencies contemplating similar deals should be aware that even non-monetary provisions in e-book distribution contracts could create conflicts of interest. A clause binding the agency to not sign exclusive deals for any of the books the agency represents with other e-book distributors, for example, would present a clear conflict of interest. (We have no reason to think Odyssey's contract with Amazon contains such a clause. From what we know, it appears that Wylie has avoided any conflict of interest.)

3. That the Wylie/Odyssey agreement is reportedly exclusive raises many questions and concerns. Authors should have access to all responsible vendors of e-books. Moreover, Amazon's power in the book publishing industry grows daily. Few publishers have the clout to stand up to the online giant, which dominates every significant growth sector of the book industry: e-books, online new books, online used books, downloadable audio, and on-demand books. (That Random House, by far the largest trade book publisher, has retaliated against the powerful Wylie Agency but not against Amazon, which must be equally culpable in Random House's view, tells you all you need to know about where power truly lies in today's publishing industry.) Adding to Amazon's strength may yield short-run benefits, but it's not in the interests of a healthy, competitive book publishing market.

There must be consideration for this exclusivity, of course, and we can only speculate as to what it is. Though we'll keep our guess to ourselves, we think the consideration wasn't monetary: we doubt that there was an advance paid for the rights or that Amazon has agreed to pay Odyssey more than 70% of the retail price of the e-books, since that might trigger most favored nation provisions in Amazon's contracts with other publishers.

Regardless of the exclusivity issues, any direct agreement between a literary agency and Amazon is troubling. Amazon has, time and again, wielded its clout in the industry ruthlessly, with little apparent regard for its relationships with authors or publishers or, for that matter, antitrust rules. Any agency working directly with Amazon may find its behavior constrained in unpleasant and unpredictable ways. Agencies should proceed with extreme care.

4. To a large extent, publishers have brought this on themselves. This storm has long been gathering. Literary agencies have refused to sign e-rights deals for countless backlist books with traditional publishers, even though they and their clients, no doubt, see real benefits in having a single publisher handle the print and electronic rights to a book. Knowledgeable authors and agents, however, are well aware that e-book royalty rates of 25% of net proceeds are exceedingly low and contrary to the long-standing practice of authors and publishers to, effectively, split evenly the net proceeds of book sales.

Bargain-basement e-book royalty rates will not last. Low e-book royalty rates will, as e-book sales become increasingly important, emerge as a dealbreaker for authors with negotiating leverage. Publishers will, inevitably, agree to reasonable royalties rather than lose their bestselling authors to more generous rivals and startups. We suspect publishers are well aware of this and are postponing the unavoidable because it seems to make sense in the short run. We believe this is short-sighted.

A major agency starting a publishing company is weird, no matter how you look at it. This sort of weirdness will only multiply, however, as long as authors don't share fairly in the rewards of electronic publishing. Publishers seeking to manage this transition well should cut authors in appropriately. The sooner they do so, the better. For everyone.


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The Authors Guild | 31 E 32nd St | Fl 7 | New York, NY 10016 | US

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Grammar, Naturally

This being summertime, with all its distractions, and me being tied up with my freelance editing and personal writing projects, I'm dipping into my files for something to post on my blog. Here's an article that appeared in 2003 in the Bulletin of SCBWI.

Grammar, Naturally


Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore

"The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions." --Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
The television sportscaster was speaking of ski jumpers at the Winter Olympics when he quoted the elder Holmes (the physician, not the Supreme Court justice). I was glued to the TV, rooting for the teenaged Harry Potter look-alike from Switzerland to win his second gold medal. But the Holmes quote sent my thoughts skidding off the slopes and slamming up against the imaginary stone wall of the "rules" of grammar.

Awaiting me at the wall were those writers who feel so tyrannized by the rules that they are scarcely able to press ahead with a sentence or a paragraph for fear of making a mistake. The stern voice of their eighth-grade English teacher rings forever in their ears: "That's a preposition! You may NOT end a sentence with a preposition!"

Begging your pardon, Mrs. G (my eighth-grade English tyrant was Aunt Bea without the dimples): When I write dialogue, I may and MUST often end with a preposition. "What did you do that for?" "Who are you going to the game with?" That last question, if recast to please the grammarian--"With whom are you going to the game?"--could only be spoken by a Chauncey Uppercrust kind of character. His formality would distance him from his peers. Most people don't talk that way.

To write dialogue that sounds natural, to narrate in a natural voice, to tell a story ringing with authenticity: these are the writer's concerns. Whenever "good grammar" gets in the way, the grammar must yield.

Creative writing admits the exceptions and recognizes that there are no real rules governing the English language. There are only guidelines, and the aim of the guidelines is communication: clear, evocative, successful. Janet Aiken, in Commonsense Grammar, makes the case beautifully: "Good grammar is not merely grammar which is free from unconventionalities, or even from the immoralities. It is the triumph of the communication process, the use of words which create in the reader's mind the thing as the writer conceived it ..."

While we're debunking grammar myths, here's another old favorite from a standard English education: the prohibition against splitting an infinitive. Some Mrs. Grundys do not dine with people who split infinitives, but I hold with George Bernard Shaw. He once complained to The Times of London about a tin-eared editor:

"There is a pedant on your staff who spends far too much of his time searching for split infinitives. Every good literary craftsman uses a split infinitive if he thinks the sense demands it. I call for this man's instant dismissal; it matters not whether he decides to quickly go or to go quickly or quickly to go. Go he must, and at once."

Some years ago, the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary sent the old "rule" packing, too. If a split infinitive sounds right and reads right, then it is right. (This may explain Gene Roddenberry's refusal "to go boldly ... ")

And what about the ban on starting a sentence with and or but? An unforced, natural style may put those two words to good use as transitions. In Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (winner of the Horn Book Award) is a prime example: "But all this is hearsay; wizards will not speak of it." Le Guin started not only the sentence but also the paragraph with but, and it's a one-sentence paragraph. (Remember what you were told about one-sentence paragraphs being "wrong"? You don't still believe it, do you?)

Where, oh where, does the comma go? A grammar book's section on comma usage can run to 15 pages. Space does not permit such treatment here. But the "serial comma" deserves a mention, if only to help ease tensions between the journalism camp and the larger world of publishing. Newspaper style omits the final comma in a series: "red, white and blue." The Chicago Manual of Style favors use of the serial comma: "red, white, and blue." Neither is more correct than the other, but many book publishers follow Chicago style. Though I'm a journalist by training, I prefer the serial comma because it gives equal weight to each member of the series and avoids lumping the final two items in together.

The key to sensible comma usage generally is to know why you are using the punctuation. Be able to account for each comma you use. A comma makes your reader pause, if only briefly. Do you want that pause? "She looked up, and there he was." That comma adds an element of suspense. "She looked up and there he was" is more a statement of fact. If a comma has ever stopped you cold, you'll find it worthwhile to check a grammar guide. But know that comma usage varies with different writers. Some use them heavily; others use them hardly at all. "The use of the comma," says The Chicago Manual, "is mainly a matter of good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view."

I hope this brief look at grammar mythology will help convince the paralyzed writer that the conventions of English usage are merely that: conventions, customs--habits. Grammar is a tool, not a tyrant. Learn it. Use it. Make it serve you. Never fear it.

And listen to Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621), who told us: "No rule is so general, which admits not some exception."

A journalist turned historian and fantasist, Deborah Lightfoot Sizemore is the author of three books of Western history and biography, including the middle-grade biography Trail Fever: The Life of a Texas Cowboy, published under the byline D.J. Lightfoot. Her books-in-progress are fantasy novels.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Update: My "Nook" e-Reader (and My Geocaching Adventure)

Back in February, I blogged about my new Barnes & Noble "Nook" e-reader and how I loved everything about it except its balky touchscreen.

Time for an update: the touchscreen is balky no more. Either my screen-tapping technique has improved, or the recent software updates have solved the problem. We're up to Version 1.4.0. This version has some new features (games, for instance) that I don't use, but with the updates my Nook works faster and seems more responsive. I now have no trouble tapping the screen to bookmark a page or search for a term. It's silky smooth.

This beautiful July afternoon, I took the Nook outdoors and sat under a shade tree in the yard as I read Mark Twain's Roughing It, an e-book I got for $1. For reading outside in a breeze, an e-reader is far superior to a traditional paper book -- no pages for the wind to riffle. The e-ink screen was exactly right for reading in the dappled shade under the tree. When bright rays of sun shot through the leaves, the screen stayed comfortably readable instead of brightening to a blinding whiteness the way a paper page will do.

My next-door neighbor came over to sit in the shade with me, and of course I had to show her my Nook. We live out in the countryside a good long way from the nearest bookstore, so the part I bragged about the most was the ability to shop for and download new books from the comfort of one's lawn chair. My neighbor seemed surprised that the 3G connection was free.

Another friend had the same reaction. She questioned me closely to be sure she understood: A free cell-phone-like connection to the B&N bookstore comes with a Nook? You don't have to pay an extra fee to shop from home? Really?

Really. Anytime I want a new book, I just tap the Shop icon, pick something, download it right then, and the book arrives instantly in my e-library. For a country girl, that is just the best part!

I Don't Merely Read and Write, I Also Geocache

What a lovely holiday I've had. My husband and I went geocaching this morning for the first time. It was research. I'm editing a manuscript about the sport of geocaching for the national youth organization I freelance for. We used our brand-new Garmin Nuvi 1300 GPS receiver to drive to the spot, then our brand-new Garmin eTrex handheld GPS receiver to walk out until we located the actual cache.

I'm so new at geocaching, I forgot to bring any little trinkets to trade. But that's OK, since there wasn't anything in the cache I wanted anyway! The fun part was finding the cleverly camouflaged little box in its clever, green hiding spot.

The search took us along a country lane barely two miles from our home, a lane I'd never been down before. It's a cul-de-sac, and I'd never had a reason to drive down it before this morning. We found an old house-place at the end of the lane, with two stately trees that had obviously flanked an entryway once upon a time. There were no foundations apparent, nothing to indicate that a house had ever stood there. But those trees -- obviously planted with care, to mark the front entrance of some long-gone house.

When the need to make a living draws me away from my novel-writing, I chafe sometimes. But not today. Today, I am acutely aware of how lucky I am. I get fun and interesting freelance assignments by which I can earn enough to fund my labor-of-love writing. And some of those assignments introduce me to new interests. I aim to go on geocaching, long after this current freelance job is over. It's a great way to explore the world, or at least the neighborhood.