Monday 18 February 2013

Golden goose, totally foxed

Photo, wikimedia commons
Amazon has just patented a system for re-selling used e-books. That's right, used e-books. Not that there is any difference between a used and a new e-book, of course. It's not the same electrons, slightly foxed. It's just the same 'new' e-book sold for less. So if you're the buyer, why buy the 'original', 'new' copy? The secondhand copy hasn't been slobbered over by someone's dog, it doesn't have coffee stains - it doesn't even have an old-book smell.

But unless Amazon passes a share to publishers and authors on re-sale, it will kill the golden goose. Amazon can effectively sell the same book again and again after only paying for it once. No money to the publisher or author. (They haven't announced any model yet; it is possible they will write in a resale royalty. It is possible porcine mammals will take to the skies.)

You could say, that's the same with other products. Houses, for instance. The people who built my house were dead long before I bought it. They got nothing from its resale. But a house is sold in a market with a different structure. The house-builders were paid for all their work when they did it. The way authors are paid is, in many cases, dependent on sales. We are paid if the book sells and not if it doesn't, paid copy by copy as a royalty. So if the people we have entrusted with selling it give it away, change the deal retrospectively, or cheat, we starve.

A lot of people don't really understand this. They say, "the book has been sold, you've been paid, shut up." But I haven't been paid; I've been given a small advance payment against the income from the book. Do you really think I would write a book for £750 (one of last year's advances)? Do you know how long it takes to write a book? The advance of £750 is only acceptable if I think the book will earn out the advance and pay for my time eventually. (It won't do that if the book is available without the publisher getting any money for it.) It's always a gamble - and it's a very long-term way of being paid. I chose the job, I signed the contract, so that's fine, I'm not grumbling about the existing model - but don't change the rules half-way through the game. 

This time, the perennial argument that we can always self-e-publish if we don't like the way publishing is heading doesn't wash. With this move, Amazon screws self-publishers as well as commercial publishing houses. So unless the model includes payments to the publishers, the golden goose - the writer/publisher behind books - will starve. Of course, it screws real publishers, too (which is why there is some chance of them putting up a fight). But Amazon wants to be a publisher. Would it be very cynical to suggest that perhaps Amazon wants to be *the* publisher?

My advice to publishers is to drop Amazon unless there is a payment on resale. There are other e-book platforms. A one-night stand with Amazon isn't worth a lifetime of regret - you learned that with the net book agreement. And my advice to authors? Add a new clause to contracts to say that if publishers receive a payment for re-sold e-books you want a share of it. Or that the rights you are signing away don't include digital re-sale rights. The publishers will then have to negotiate with Amazon or only sell on other platforms.

And to readers? I will ask that they please get pirate copies of my books rather than give profit to Amazon if none of the money is going to the original publisher/author.

Oh - and to people who say that they have bought an e-book and if they'd bought a paper book they could sell it second-hand? I say it's not really comparable, because it's *not* like a secondhand book - it's in pristine condition. Perhaps I'd be more amenable to the idea if Amazon ran all the returned e-books through an e-foxing program that ripped out random pages, blurred some of the characters and drew doodles across some of the text.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Being a writer is a cushy life - discuss

I've made a living from writing of one sort or another since 1988. The last time I had a 'proper' full-time job with a paid salary (indeed, the only time if you don't count holiday jobs at university) was January to March 1988. Even then it wasn't a *real* proper job as I was an academic.

Now, being an academic is hard work, which is why I decided not to do it any more [joke] but it's not 'proper' in terms of having to work 9-5:30 in the same place doing as you're told all the time, all year. OK, they employ you to teach medieval English and French literature (in my case), and if you don't cover Chaucer and Malory and Langland and Chretien de Troyes and the Chanson de Roland, there will be trouble. But whether you see Nicola at 10 am or 6pm is up to you and Nicola. Whether you mark Sahib's dissertation at 2pm or 2am - no one cares as long as you do it before the deadline.

Luckily, that job was temporary. And when it ended, I didn't apply for another academic job - or any job, in fact. I'd tried having a job and I didn't much like it. So I set about selling my time in chunks for specific tasks - whether the task was teaching Renaissance poetry or writing about operating systems or training grumpy printers in digital typesetting.

I have a few friends with 'proper' jobs. Some of them have a low opinion of my so-called job. They think I have a warped view of the world and a cushy life because I don't have to get out of bed and drive or cycle anywhere at 7:30 every day (at least, not since the days when I had to get my kids to school). And because I can take holiday at a moment's notice (ho ho - not if there's a deadline looming). Never the mind the fact that I usually start work at 6 am while they are still asleep and take far fewer holidays than they do...

But I think *they* have a warped view of the world and a cushy life. They are paid if they're sick! They are paid if they go on holiday! They don't have to do tedious admin, or clean their own office, or order their own toner cartridges or fix their own computers! And - craziest of all - if they screw up something, they're still paid. They're even paid to have another go at it! If there's nothing for them to do one day, they're still paid. If a client cancels the project they've been working on, that's OK because they've already been paid for the work they did. And they know how much they will get each month. What's more, it goes up, even if slowly. It never goes down. It's never zero. And if they lose their job, there's a benefits safety net. They can easily prove they don't have any work and they get their handout.

I love my job and I wouldn't change it - had I wanted to change it, I would have done so years ago. But please, non-writers, don't assume it's a cushy life just because the hours are irregular and I don't have to do as I'm told. I would hate to be a wage-monkey, but I suspect you would hate not knowing if you'll be paid for the work you've done, or knowing you won't be paid if you take a week off with flu.