Translating JA Konrath Translating John Sargent: Are Subscription Models Bad For Authors?

I'm Robert Stanek, a successful indie author since 2001 and a successful pro author since 1994. Joe Konrath is quite outspoken about his dislike and disdain for traditional publishing. Some would even say Joe is quite angry. I don't blame Joe for his anger considering he labored for many years as a traditionally published author, barely making a living, until he went indie and finally found true success. In past blog posts, Joe has angrily tore apart trad published authors like James Patterson and others, including the Authors Guild, for their defense of traditional publishing. (For the record, this is not meant as a dis on Joe.)

Personally, I think Joe should be more angry about the broken state of publishing and many of the things I've been blogging about right here: runaway ugliness in publishing; Amazon's broken system; Amazon's unfair business practices; etc.

There is no doubt Joe's an unfettered champion of Amazon, but Joe has much to learn about the heartless, soulless company in Seattle that puts smiley faces on its boxes while working to destroy everything we love about books and reading. If Joe really thinks any executive at Amazon gives a damn about his loyalty, my advice is this: wait a few years and see how they repay your loyalty when you're not making $1 million a year.

I became a pro author the same year Amazon became a company: 1994. I was one of the guy's who put Amazon on the map. My bestselling books, widely read articles, and highly popular websites all told readers about Amazon. I brought millions of new customers to Amazon's doorstep. My reward for years of steadfast loyalty? A handful of shit from a company that could care less about years of loyalty or the millions brought to their doors. And when they use you up, Joe, and shit you out on the pavement, there'll be a thousand guys in line to take your place who all will also think their loyalty means something.

Recently Joe's war against traditional publishing has taken him in new directions. He posted a tirade as a  response to Macmillan CEO John Sargent’s open letter to authors regarding tactics the company is taking to preserve market share in these difficult times for publishing (and books in general). Personally, I think John should have posted such a letter on Macmillan's site and not a Tor.com blog, but that's neither here nor there as I'm sure the letter went out in printed letters, email, etc as well.

As my books have been published by Macmillan, Random House, Pearson, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, etc, John's words were of particular interest. One of the biggest takeaways from the letter is that Amazon sells 64% of Macmillan's ebooks (meaning all other markets represent only 36%). I was not surprised to learn Macmillan was going to begin trials of subscription-based services. I had just done the same in September/October with my ebooks and audio books going into several subscription services.

I was surprised that Joe, whose books are all in Amazon's subscription service, Kindle Unlimited, was suddenly telling Macmillan authors that they should be screaming their heads off about Macmillan's potential use of subscription services. Is not what's good for the goose, good for the gander?

If subscription services devalue authors' works and are bad, why are 100% of Joe's works in Amazon's subscription service? Also, with current payouts for Kindle Unlimited not being far off from what Joe earns in KDP Select, isn't KDP Select devaluing his work and bad as well? As far as I know, Joe has been fine with the ~$1.70 payout of KDP Select, making north of $1 million from borrows, so what makes the ~$1.50 payout of Kindle Unlimited any different?

Joe's questions for John Sargent on behalf of Macmillan authors. My responses in normal type.

1. Can I opt out of this new subscription idea?

Likely, many/most authors are excited about these opportunities, especially with dwindling sales for most, increasing competition and decreasing market relevance. Recently, another publisher (Pearson/Microsoft) did allow me to opt out no questions asked from a new plan I didn't like.

2. My books aren't available in print anymore, or the print sales are minuscule. Can you give me my rights back?

Regarding reversions of rights, there's not a whole hell of a lot authors can do. Joe was fortunate to get his rights back from Macmillan. Many others won't be as fortunate. 

Macmillan made a huge amount of money from my books, north of $50 million, give or take. In the early days when I was writing for Macmillan, I worked hard to make my contracts more fair and balanced, but rights were something they held fast to. A lucky few might get back their rights, but may have to wait a decade or two until Macmillan believes the rights no longer have any value.

There are worse things than publishers holding onto rights. Ever heard of the Creative Commons? The Creative Commons basically is a set of rules for putting an author's work in public domain before copyright expires. In plain language, Creative Commons makes the work freely available to all.

In and of itself, Creative Commons is not a bad thing and was in fact created with the best of intentions. However, some publishers have turned those good intentions to their favor. As an example, O'Reilly Media's standard contract puts an author's work into Creative Commons automatically when it goes out of print or sells fewer than X copies a year (and then also grants O'Reilly Media a perpetual grant to use the work for free). 

For many O'Reilly Media authors this has meant that in 2 - 5 years after publication, their hard work is suddenly in the public domain and O'Reilly Media is free to start using it however they want in perpetuity. Now that's something to be outraged about.

Questions 3 - 17 are all pretty much the same: Why a subscription service? What does this mean to me when you went to war with Amazon over prices?

The fight with Amazon wasn't about price at all. It was about who gets what share of the royalties. See Selling Your Soul to the Company Store.

Joe's further comments in bold italics. My comments in normal type.

Macmillan supporting Oyster and withdrawing titles from Amazon is going against what the majority of the world is doing. That isn't kicking Amazon in the nuts. That's throwing away potential money, and pretty stupid. At this moment in time, competing with Amazon isn't wise. Look for markets Amazon doesn't care about.  Throwing support behind one of Amazon's competitors--when Amazon has the same program--is like starting a fire by burning piles of cash. Yeah, you get heat, but at what cost?

Um, earlier, you said this:

I'm unclear: are you only pursuing this subscription model with Amazon's competitors? Or are you going to also enroll my ebooks in Kindle Unlimited? If so, doesn't that negate everything you've done previously? If not, and you put my ebooks into Scribd or Oyster or wherever, will my ebooks still be sold on Amazon? Or will you pull them from Amazon?

I think a test of the subscription model will be exactly that. A test to determine viability. Likely, Macmillan will use Oyster and possibly Scribd as well for this test. Further, John states exactly this: We plan to try subscription with backlist books, and mostly with titles that are not well represented at bricks and mortar retail stores.

And can someone answer how any author, other than a big bestseller, would ever sign with Macmillan knowing their books are going into a subscription plan?

One could ask the same of any author who has considered or used subscription plans. Joe, you currently do this, and you also use KDP Select for all of your titles. As far as I know, the ~$1.70 payout of KDP Select and the ~$1.50 payout of Kindle Unlimited aren't much different.

The reason most writers sign legacy deals, other than getting an advance, is legacy's ability to get paper books onto retail shelves.

Strongly disagree. The reason most writers sign legacy deals is because of the worldwide reach of traditional publishers coupled with the belief that there is more potential for sales success. I'm not saying this is true any longer, but it is a long-held perception.

Thanks for reading,

Robert Stanek

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