Unto the Breach
So I’m pleased to announce that I have signed the contract for three more Praxis books.
Now I announced the offer in September of 2015, but it took until now to negotiate the contract.
What with publishers becoming more monolithic— only five left standing, after all— and feeling threatened by Amazon and new technologies, they’ve reacted by trying to get a bigger slice out of everyone else’s pie, particularly the authors. Their contracts have grown more, well, oppressive. Particularly as regards the reversion clause, which is the procedure by which authors regain control of their own work.
Reversion clauses used to be simple: if a book fell out of print, the author could ask for the book to be returned to print, or the rights returned to the author. But now, as a result of new technologies, books never have to fall out of print.
For instance, there’s print-on-demand. Instead of doing a big print run, a publisher could theoretically run off one or two copies, put them in a warehouse, and claim that the book is in print and available. I know of one author who deliberately bought up every copy remaining in the publisher’s inventory so that she could invoke the reversion clause, only to have the publisher print a few new ones and refuse to return her rights.
Also, ebooks are forever. A publisher could claim that the ebook sitting in Amazon’s inventory is “in print,” and refuse to return rights.
So the reversion clause has to be negotiated very carefully, so that ebooks and print-on-demand are excluded. Assuming, of course, publishers are willing to negotiate at all.
Now as it happens most of my income these days comes from the rights of books I’ve reverted and made available as ebooks, so I’m particularly concerned with the wording of my reversion clauses. And I can afford to negotiate those clauses over time, because my ebook money also falls under the category of fuck-you money, and I don’t have to sign any contract that I don’t like. (In fact I turned down an offer a couple years ago.)
But I’m lucky. First-time authors with no track record won’t have the leverage to negotiate favorable clauses, and so their work may sit in warehouses for decades, and their ebooks may earn a few pennies from one year to the next; whereas if they were actually relaunched by someone who cared (like the author), they could actually become a decent source of income.
(Which is why it’s really dumb for publishers to try to hang onto those pennies, and to maintain a whole infrastructure and bureaucracy dedicated to retaining those pennies, because even with a big backlist those pennies aren’t going to pay for it all.)
And so (I hear you ask) why seek publication by the Big Five after all? Because (1) they offered me money, and (2) I don’t want to put all my career eggs into a single basket. Ebook sales are volatile, many sales are generated by gimmicks that quickly grow obsolete, and I’m in competition with a couple million self-published authors who can’t write their way out of a paper bag, but who get just as much shelf space as I do. If you’re published by a traditional publisher, it demonstrates that someone cared enough for your work to pay more than taxi-fare money for it.
And if the books fail, I’ll get them back, and then I’ll market them myself. Win/win.
So I’d like to thank my agents Joshua Bilmes and Eddie Schneider for hanging on through sixteen months of negotiation. Great work, guys.
And when will the first book appear, you ask? In anticipation of a successful contract outcome, I’ve actually been working on The Accidental War for some time now, and it should be seeing print late in 2018. Or so I guess.
As they say in the New Yorker, Onward and upward with the arts!