July 27th, 2010

ebook coverage on All Things Considered

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128801507

I took the time to listen to the piece. There are differences between the article as written and the piece as spoken, but they are quite minor; reading the article is a complete substitute in terms of content and rhetorical structure.

Here are the most obvious problems with the coverage. FWIW, there are large errors of commission on the part of the author of the piece; the errors are errors of omission.

(1) At no point in the article is there any indication that Random House "making an exception" for William Styron is probably posturing. Random House has gone to court on one or two occasions in the last ten-ish years regarding rights not explicitly covered in a book contract. Contracts for book rights differ, and different language can be interpreted differently by different courts (for that matter, the same language can be interpreted differently by different courts or the same court at different points in time). Random House has not won any of these cases. Random House "making an exception" is code for, "yeah, we think you've got the money to play this through to the end, so we're going to cut our losses and hope we can bluff other authors, authors (and their literary heirs) in general not being the brightest bulbs, legally".

(2) No explanation is given for the assertion that the royalty going forward (which writers want increased for digital rights) cannot be resolved by publishers until they figure out who owns digital rights for books where the contract does not explicitly state digital rights. I'm pretty sure what the connection is: if publishers know they've got a boat load of rights going backward, they are prepared to offer slightly more going forward. But if they don't know that, they don't want to offer more going forward. Why? Because the entire publishing model is based on the cash cows of the backlist (and authors who are regularly assigned in english classes can be very juicy). It's not clear why Ms. Neary doesn't make this connection clear; it is _very_ obvious why the publishers don't want this to be made clear. If people realized this is how publishing worked, they'd be thinking that maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing if publishers just went away entirely. Remember, these are the same people who will hang onto rights and leave something out of print if they don't think it pays for them to reissue.

(3) Turow is allowed to get away with characterizing Wylie (the agency, not the publisher Wiley) as a publisher. This is not justified. "an exclusive deal Wylie recently signed with Amazon to sell digital versions of some bestsellers..."When an agent becomes a publisher, that is sort of contradictory," says bestselling author and Authors Guild President Scott Turow. Turow says the guild is concerned that Wylie may have a conflict of interest in taking on the role of both publisher and agent."

Wylie is _not_ the publisher. Amazon is the publisher AND the seller. Wylie is just the agent. It is utterly unclear why the author failed to point this out. There was a day (okay, decades if not centuries) when publishers and sellers were _always_ the same for newly printed books. The separation of publishers and sellers is not as modern an innovation as the creation of wholesaler/distributors, but it is still pretty new. Random House may be picking on the 99 pound weakling (the author); Turow is picking on the 116 pound weakling (the agent). Not a difference that makes a difference.

There are indications that Turow is not an idiot:

""The concern," Turow says, "is that they will step up, take the cream and make it impossible for other publishers to survive, because they are going to take the titles where the most money will be made.""

We had lots of other indications that Turow is not an idiot: _One L_ has never stopped selling.