Will author contract reform succeed this time?

Image - iStockphoto: istocksdaily
Image – iStockphoto: istocksdaily

‘Can you hear me now?’ 

A not-so-funny television commercial a while back gave us that line with maddening repetition as we watched a hapless mobile phone customer wander through his world in search of a decent connection.

The line might work today for authors, agents, and others who are becoming increasingly frustrated by the “silence of the trads,” as we sometimes call it, over contract reform.


This story was written as the walkup to the #FutureChat of 10th July. Join us today and every Friday for #FutureChat live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).


Our question today for #FutureChat — and do join us — is whether we might just be about to hear a crackle on the other end of the line and a distant voice say, “Yes, we can hear you.” I’m quietly getting the word out, too, that we’d be particularly pleased for any agents interested to come along today. The agenting community has, for obvious reasons, been on the front lines of this challenge for a very long time and, collectively, has a wealth of experienced knowledge of what’s happening. Do you have an agent? Invite her or him to #FutureChat.

And why might we be getting closer to seeing a change in contractual norms? Because the digital dynamic brings a new player into the room of this long-running debate: the reader.

You may see folks in #FutureChat today try to tell us that readers cannot be made to take an interest in their authors’ welfare. A lot of others disagree.

What almost no one will try to say is that if the consumers’ attention can be snagged on this issue that those readers are going to side with publishers against their authors. Really? #Cmonson. This is the kind of issue in which public sympathy can readily be expected to run one way and not the other.

Philip Pullman

And the reason we’re taking this one up for #FutureChat this week has to do with the timing in both the US and the UK of some very public efforts to raise the visibility of the dilemma.

In the The Bookseller yesterday, we reported on Carnegie Medalist author Philip Pullman throwing his support behind the Society of Authors’ new call for a review of laws applicable to “creator contracts.” As our Charlotte Eyre wrote it up:

Pullman urged publishers to comply with the SoA’s recommendations, which include proper accreditation and remuneration, saying “it’s not always easy [for authors] to see our way through the thickets of legal language that grow so vigorously around the commercial exploitation of our work, nor to know how our own position with regard to our rights compares with others”.

At the Society of Authors’ (SoA) site, you can see the organisation’s own write-up of chief executive Nicola Solomon’s commentary on contracts, made at the All Party Writers Group Summer Reception. If you haven’t seen it yet, this is where  you can go over the SoA’s use of the word “creator” to lay out a “magnificent seven” contractual issues that the authors believe are most urgent for attention. I’ll have them for you in a moment.

But first, look next at the United States’ counterpart, the Authors Guild (AG) site. Here, you see the first in a long series-to-come of extensively parsed issues in author contracts, and the headline makes the Guild’s starting point unmistakable: Half of Net Proceeds is the Fair Royalty Rate for eBooks.

Brief background: yes, this is new. Things have changed at the AG. While many embittered authors don’t seem to want to concede this, the polarising years of Scott Turow’s leadership of the Guild are over. A new executive, the creative-rights attorney Mary Rasenberger, and a new president, the author Roxana Robinson, are in place. And they have mounted a new Fair Contracts Initiative which may leverage its greatest power by putting detailed, potent talking points into the hands of authors who can communicate them to their readers in ways that simply weren’t doable pre-digital.

Some scoff at this. Others of us are more careful: when beloved-brand authors can tweet to their readers the fact that ebook royalties remain at only 25 percent, it’s by no means clear yet that those readers won’t care. You might recall our mention of a Hay Festival appearance by the author Ali Sparkes for BBC Radio 4’s Front Row in which she told the audience that her income from a book’s sale was less than a single pound. It would be unwise to underestimate how well that kind of revelation can be understood, and questioned, by readers.

This is not the same old same old, either. Authors have not, traditionally, spent a lot of public-appearance time talking about their plight in the marketplace. That seems to be changing.

And if there’s anything the publishing industry’s traditional powers really don’t need, it’s the embarrassment of being seen to be less than generously supportive of their authors: the prime interface with the marketplace. They’re fully up to speed on public chatter about the importance of their authors, you notice. The day may be coming on which they need to put their money where their PR is.

Another way to put today’s #FutureChat issue then: How much egg does the industry want to wear on its face? Let’s look at our tale of two author-advocacy efforts.

There’s more to this story: Read the rest

By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook:  #FutureChat today: Will author contract reform succeed this time?

Read the full post at: TheBookseller.com/futurebook




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