With the end of the year upon us, I wanted to take a moment and reflect a bit.
September 2009 marked my twenty-first anniversary of working in publishing. To celebrate, I threw away my fake ID and went down to a bar for a beer.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been twenty-one years. Shouldn’t I be president of a publishing house by now?
Many do not know that I came into this business hoping to be a science-fiction editor but, as many of you do know, I’m a very pragmatic guy. When I graduated from the Radcliffe Publishing Course, publishers were offering $12-14,000 a year. My first offer was $20,000, from a computer-books imprint of S&S. I naïvely asked them for an “offer letter,” just as many of my college friends had gotten from big companies, so that I could have that while I was considering my options. I never heard from them again. Hmmm.
My next offer came from the Rights Department of S&S, for a whopping $15,000 a year. Fortunately or unfortunately, that job required me to work late two or three nights a week—late as in 11PM—and a least one weekend day a week. With overtime, I was on track to nearly double my salary. Alas, my bosses and I came to a mutual agreement that the job wasn’t working out. I was looking for a career and they, well, were looking for a slave. Or so it seemed to me.
I moved on to Warner Books—now Grand Central Publishing—and started to think I was finally on my way. I worked for two editors, Rick Horgan and Brian Thomsen. Talk about night and day! Rick was fond of suspenders (it was the 80s) and exercise. Brian was fond of polyester, endless cups of coffee, and baked goods. Both were good guys, but firmly in the “you have to crawl though manure and broken glass to get ahead” mold of publishing bosses. Brian, I’m sorry to say, passed away this year and I feel remiss in not having been a better friend and stayed more in touch. Rick is now a VP & Executive Editor at Crown. Not surprisingly, it was at Warner that I gave up on being an SF editor. SF&F was just treated poorly there. Like Westerns or “erotica” at many houses. The house liked the profits, but wasn’t that big a fan of the books. I started to pay a lot more attention to the books Rick did and it was at Warner that I started to acquire and edit my own titles.
I learned a lot from Rick, not least of which was that persistence is important in publishing. He had worked at a house called Donald I. Fine before Warner and the look of shock on his face when I told him I was leaving Warner to go to work for Don said all I needed to know about his experience there. I might as well have told him I was going to work in a sweatshop in Burma. But Rick had gone to DIF as an editorial assistant or assistant editor and walked out three years or so later with a cush job as a Senior Editor at Warner. I figured I could do the same.
DIF was hellish, there’s no doubt, but it was kind of like being Tom Hanks in CASTAWAY. There were some rudimentary resources, like pretty new computers, and a genuine desire to do good books and make money. If you could ignore the troll who owned the place and screamed at the top of his lungs most of the day, you could do good work there. Of course, there was the weeklong debate over the title of a book I thought could be the next SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Don started out wanting to call it HERE’S BLOOD IN YOUR EYE. We ended up with THROUGH A LENS DARKLY, which was fine, though the book did not tap into the marketplace as successfully as I’d hoped. Ironically, Rick picked up paperback rights for Warner, after I’d left DIF.
DIF was a crucible. There were ten people there when fully staffed. When I started, two other new people had just joined. Everyone who had been there longer than two months looked at the newbies the way battle-scarred veterans look at the FNGs straight from boot. I guess I’m lucky not to have been nicknamed “Cherry.” No, instead Don called me the “Fucking Amateur,” because when I suggested we do something the way we’d done it at Warner, he found it offensive. Of course, another assistant was the “Fucking Moron” and an editor there was the “Fat Fuck.” Yes, this man was my boss. He was also the editor who discovered more than his fair share of best-selling authors throughout his career and who had started one publishing house and sold it, and then started another and had a good, long run before Don’s age and illness, as well as the death of the reprint market, resulted in it being absorbed by Penguin. You see, DIF succeeded because Don found hardcovers that he bought for $5,000 and sold paperback rights for $50,000 or $500,000. But when hard/soft became the rule, and with his reputation for being, well, an asshole, it became harder and hard to close those reprint deals.
But I learned a lot working for Don. Not really from Don, but just because I was there and he needed books to be bought and edited and he had few people to do that. It wasn’t like Warner, where letting an assistant buy a book was about throwing him or her a bone. It was about helping the house survive. I negotiated and prepared the contracts for all of my acquisitions (and a lot of Don’s). I got to present my own books at sales conference. I wrote the flap and cover copy for all of my books. I edited my titles without anyone looking over my shoulder. It was hell, but it was a hell with opportunities that large publishers can never offer.
But I was thrilled when I got a call to come interview for an Editor’s job at Berkley. I’d gone to DIF expecting to spend a few years suffering but publishing books and hopefully demonstrating that I had some taste and talent. I was there eight months. I was originally offered the title of Associate Editor at Berkley and I asked the boss, Leslie Gelbman, “But is there really a difference between an Associate Editor and an Editor? Plus Editors get more respect from agents, so I’d be able to do the job better.” She asked me, “If I say you’ll be an Editor, will you take the job?” I said yes. She said, “Congratulations, you’re an Editor.” I was twenty-four years old.
Berkley was an educational experience also, but unlike DIF, I failed the test. It’s hard to go from an environment where everyone screams at each other to one where people politic behind the scenes and, well, lie to your face. This, of course, describes most corporations in the world, but when I went to Berkley I didn’t catch on too quickly. I spent about a year and a half there and was nearly relieved when I was informed that my position had been eliminated.
So now what? Four houses between 9/89 and 5/92. Leslie Schnur, who was editor-in-chief at Dell, highlighted that fact at breakfast one morning, and then offered me a freelance gig. So did Bob Mecoy, who was running Avon at the time. And Berkley paid me to finish editing a novel, and Don paid me to edit a novel. And Jay Garon, who was John Grisham’s agent at the time, paid me to read potential clients’ manuscripts and find him good ones. I reviewed submissions for the Book-of-the-Month Club and reviewed a couple of titles for KIRKUS. A couple of agents asked me to read manuscripts and provide feedback. Then an author I’d first bought a book from at Berkley sold another book to Forge, part of Tom Doherty Associates. Coincidentally, I got a meeting with Bob Gleason, then editor-in-chief of Forge, who offered me the job of editing this new book. And thus I became a Consulting Editor for Forge.
I liked a lot of what I did at Forge. Parts of it reminded me of DIF, like writing my own flap copy and presenting at sales conference. I enjoyed that sense of independence. But other parts were more difficult. As a Consulting Editor, I was more out-of-the-loop than I wanted to be and I found it difficult to not be a part of decisions that were being made about my books and authors, like what would be on the cover.
One guy I edited there was Bill Harrington, who was writing a series of COLUMBO (from the TV show) mysteries. His agent was Ted Chichak, of Scott Meredith Literary Agency, a very established agency. But when Scott died, Ted and a couple of his colleagues launched a new firm, Scovil Chichak Galen, and I wrote Ted and asked about becoming an agent.
I could regale you for hours with stories about SCG (now Scovil Galen Ghosh or SGG), but I will save those for my actual memoirs and it will suffice to say that I learned a lot there also. I went out on my own, with Russ Galen’s encouragement, in 1996.
So, I’ve been an agent now for close to seventeen years, nearly fourteen of them with my own firm. It’s hard to believe. I’ve watched a business that used to deliver royalty statements typed with typewriters turn into one dominated by conglomerates that use SAP and Excel. I’ve seen wars over who will control the rights to put books on CD-ROM turn into arguments over who controls electronic book rights. I’ve seen novels written on typewriters and novels written on dot-matrix printers turn into self-published novels indistinguishable from those a publisher puts out. I’ve met and represented Hollywood stars and negotiated with lawyers from the highest end of the movie business. I’ve taken no-name authors and watched their careers grow book after book. And I’ve seen good authors suffer the downward spiral that results when a publisher no longer supports them. I’ve gone from shipping twenty 400-page manuscripts at a time to making all of my submissions via email.
What will the next seventeen years bring? Who knows? But I know what just a few more years will bring and I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t bode well for authors or their agents.
I expect publishers to become increasingly aggressive with regard to royalties, largely in response to efforts by Amazon and other large retailers to demand bigger discounts from publishers. Ironically, Amazon, a company that was founded as an online bookseller, is contributing to the death of the book business. Because Amazon can only deeply discount books at the levels it does by either getting deeper discounts from publishers or selling at a loss. Right now, it sells a number of eBooks at a loss, because it is trying to build a market for its eBook reader, the Kindle. And that market is certainly growing. But what are the effects? In a recent blog, I talked about B&N deeply discounting at super-stores and driving smaller bookstores out of business. Who is Amazon trying to drive out of business? Sony, with its own eReader? B&N, with its eReader?
Books are not cellphone minutes, but Amazon and other online retailers that are deeply discounting eBooks are treating them as such. They are willing to take a loss or zero profit on eBooks in order to sell their eReaders. Their model is the reverse of the cellphone business, which gave you a free phone and then made up the cost in the price of talk time. But just as your phone now costs you $50 or $199, your eBooks will eventually cost more.
What consumers don’t realize that is Amazon and B&N and other discounting chains are, in fact, driving up the retail cost of books. Since publishers’ discounts are based on the retail price, they must start at a higher price in order to accommodate the discounts being demanded by chains so that they can offer discounts to consumers. As Amazon and other retailers push to get higher discounts than 50% on regular books and higher than 60% on eBooks, the actual price of books and eBooks can only go up, because that price is the starting point from which discounts are calculated.
Some of this, of course, is tied to author royalties, which are often based on the “catalogue retail price” or “list price.” This is usually the price printed on the book. Eliminate royalties based on list price and start paying based on net and publishers can stop printing prices on books and then the pricing wars can REALLY begin. And publishers are going to start playing around with this, as they already have with eBooks. I recently negotiated for close to sixteen months on a new deal for a client. The first four to six months of that negotiation was an argument over the publisher’s attempt to switch my client to a “net” royalty system. Long conversations and conference calls took place, and emails were written. Spreadsheets were presented by the publisher, “demonstrating” that the average discount for this client was 47%. The only problem was that publishers’ terms of sale are posted on the web (a lovely improvement from the days when you would have to ask for their discount schedule and they would say “why?” and pretend it was proprietary, top-secret information). I looked up this publisher’s terms of sale and pointed out that the STARTING discount was 48% and that if you ordered enough copies, even mixed title, you swiftly qualified for 50%. So how on earth could they be claiming 47% was the average? I won the battle, for now, but I promise this publisher is likely cutting deals on a net basis with other authors.
Publishers will also start to more aggressively push “deep discount” language in contracts. One publisher I deal with used to have language stating that sales had to be at a deep discount AND outside of normal retail and wholesale channels AND non-returnable before a deep-discount royalty was applied. Now all sales at 56% or higher are at a deep-discount royalty. St. Martin’s, which recently revised its boilerplate to make it even less author-friendly, lowers that bar even further, stating that all hardcover sales starting at 48% and all paperback sales starting at 50% are subject to a reduction in royalty.
The bottom line? Authors can look forward to a continued chipping away at their share of income from books. The only possible response? Agents will have to work even hard to get higher and higher advances, turning more and more books into effective buyouts. My advice to clients now would have to be to never count on royalties and look at them as “found money” when they come in.
Alternatively, authors can just say “no.” “No” is the most powerful word in any negotiation and only when enough authors are willing to tell a publisher that they will not do business on terms that are so unfavorable will publishers come to change their terms.
I suspect that, as time marches on, we will see publishers become more and more like the movie business. They will pay similar advances as they do now, but insist on all rights and NO royalties. Until book authors have something like the WGA to negotiate on behalf of all writers for minimum terms, publishers will continue to lower the terms for authors.
But the same can be said of publishers needing to just say no...to Amazon and B&N and Walmart. At some point, publishers have to simply say to these accounts that they cannot sell them books at the terms they are demanding. Will this reduce the marketplace? I doubt any of them will stop selling books. Maybe they will order a few less, and return even fewer. That could be a positive thing for publishers.
What bothers me most about the marketplace today is how willing and eager publishers are to take money from authors to make up what they give away to the accounts. How can they complain about the “demands” of agents seeking higher advances when they work so hard to ensure that authors will never see royalties?
Perhaps we’ll see a groundbreaking publisher arise, one that operates on net royalties and only sells non-returnable, but with a reasonable royalty split, e.g., 20%/25%/30% or even just 50% of net. Everyone believes that there are MEGA-authors who already have such “partnership” deals with publishers. Why couldn’t it work for all authors? Of course, we’d end up back in the Hollywood model, arguing over definitions of “net,” but perhaps it would still be an improvement. On paper, at least.
I realize this is not the rosiest prediction of publishing’s future, but I will continue to do what I’ve always done: work as hard as I can to get the best deals I can for my clients. And all I can ask of you is to write the best books you can...yearly!
My best wishes to you and your families for a happy and healthy New Year!