From a while back, the Authors Guild on reforming publishing contracts.

This is worth reading if you’ve any interest in publishing whatsoever, because it gives some ideas about the things you’ll find in boilerplate contracts that fall into the “standard but bullshit” bucket. A lot of these are gimmies agents (and their lawyers) will negotiate out, particularly the stuff around reversion, which is why you need an agent. But even agents can’t work magic, especially if you’re debut or in the midlist, and some clauses are bullshit across the board.

The bottom line here is that, in an ideal world (ideal for authors, that is), all rights in publishing contracts should be based on sales and usage. Publishers should not be allowed to hoard unexploited rights like giant steel-and-glass dragons sitting atop a pile of redlined manuscripts and crumpled dreams. In this brave new world of ebooks and POD, sales figures are the new out of print, and and active marketing–where the term “active” means “investment of money”–is the new exercise.

The flip side to this, of course, is a reduction in backlists owned by publishers.

Publishers, in other words, can’t be Amazon. Amazon is the dragon here; it works by hoarding vast quantities of goods, making fractions of a cent off each. It is both the “laziest”1 and most profitable model, but also the one that represents the least lock-in for content creators. The thing about being a the biggest dragon in the room, however, is that you’re a useful source of warmth for all the other big dragons, whether these are publishing houses or individual authors who own their own large backlists. In the case of publishing houses, it’s the existence of Amazon–particularly ebooks on Amazon–that’s turned their own rights hoards into piles of pennies.

And, as anyone who’s ever counted a mass of change will know, even pennies add up eventually.

Which is all a very convoluted metaphor to say that, for publishers to work the way the Authors Guild is advocating here, they’d need to shift from being Amazons to being Apples. That is, move from the “everything store” model and into the high-prestige, high-investment, high-return tastemakers.

That means no backlist, no midlist, and no (unknown) debuts. Just bestsellers, all day every day. No need to nurture talent when rights to proven works can be bought from smaller presses and self-publishes, in the way tech companies buy startups.2 Then it’s all reward and no risk, just the way shareholders like it.

None of this is a revolutionary or a secret, incidentally. The fact that the Big Five haven’t already gone down this road shows just how sentimental the industry is about its role as a custodian of culture, as opposed to profits. But there are some pretty serious signs that sentimentality is dying.

The next decade will be Interesting Times indeed, in other words. And maybe groups like the Authors Guild had better be careful what it wishes for, in this world where everything has a price…

  1. Quotes, because I have my content-creator hat on today, not my technologist hat. We can get into the effort behind Amazon’s infrastructure and tech investments at a later date. []
  2. What? You think Microsoft and Google and Apple and Amazon and Facebook do their own R&D? Hah! Not really. They buy it. Or, rather, they buy the first 90% and do that last 10% in-house. This is so prevalent that it’s even the business model for the vast majority of tech startups. No-one actually wants to be profitable with their company; they want to burn enough VC that their company gets enough notice to be bought out. []