A fellow author and writers' loop member, Linda, posed some interesting questions. Rather than make myself crazy trying to address them in the narrow comments box, I decided to do a follow-up post on the S&S letter.
What is the downside if a writer signs the proposed S&S contract?
Obviously, I’m speculating here because this letter is NOT clear. Given the fact that it is so murky, I’m going to take the Authors Guild interpretation: That is, when a writer signs with S&S, the contract says S&S will retain rights as long as the book is available for sale, even if only in their online database.
I can think of several scenarios where there's a downside. Here's one:
It’s axiomatic that, for most writers, it takes several books to build a readership. Obviously, there are those special few who have a blockbuster right out of the gates, but that isn’t the norm. For most writers, ordinary wisdom says that it takes five or six books to develop a fan base. Once that happens, fans—like you, Linda—often go looking for an author’s earlier works. I remember Janet Evanovich saying during a talk in Fort Worth that she didn’t hit big until her thirteenth novel, the first about Stephanie Plum.
Under the present system, maybe the rights revert back to our author after seven years or maybe they came back after five years when only a few devoted fans were buying his books, the minimum sales threshold wasn’t reached and the author wrote the required letter, requesting return of the rights.
Anyway, for the sake of argument, let's say the rights went back to the author and then the writer got big and interest in those early books piques. If S&S decided after ten years they want to re-release the first book, they’d have to re-negotiate the original deal. And I promise you, they’d have to up the royalty percentage on that re-release.
However, if the writer signed that S&S contract, there is no going back and re-looking at the deal for those earlier books. The writer is locked into whatever lowly royalty percentage he agreed to a decade earlier. Yes, he will continue to earn royalties, but only at the originally agreed upon rate.
Once the lack of sales by S&S triggers the revision of rights clause to the author, what else can he or she do with the book? Are there companies willing to pay advances to authors for a book that isn't selling? That, in fact, has a proven track record of not selling (which is why the book rights are available)?
Okay, you're making a leap here when you say the book "has a proven track record of not selling." Maybe the book had respectable numbers in its original release, but now it's three years later. S&S isn't doing anything to promote it; the book is just sitting out there on its database in the hope someone stumbles across it, or that a reader like you goes looking for it. That doesn't mean the book is a loser; it just means it's been off the bookshelves for three years and nothing is driving traffic toward it.
Publishing has trends the way every other industry does. Books and genres come in and out of vogue along with movies and television programs. Say your author goes with a new publisher who decides to re-package a series of vampire novels that were originally sold as horror, but will now be sold as urban fantasies.
With a new cover and a new publisher pushing it, the book might find a whole new life. It's happened. I can think of multiple instances when I have picked up what I thought was a new book by a favorite author only to find it was a very old book with a new title and a new publisher. At least once, I actually purchased a book only to get home and find it was re-packaged with a new title.
Would the author have to go to a POD company and pay them to make it available? If so, then isn't S&S saving them money?
While I think there's a day when self-publishing may make sense for writers, right now there are only very specific groups for whom I think it makes sense. For those groups, go here. Only the last three listed are viable reasons to me. So this question is a non-starter for me.
I'm sure there are writers who are so desperate to be published that they will essentially sell their manuscripts to S&S. As you say, every writer must make his or her own decision.
After decades of centralization, I wouldn't be surprised to see the publishing industry begin to fragment again. The Internet and POD technology will make it possible for small boutique publishing houses that serve specific niches to emerge.
In the same way that new options are springing up for readers, I think new options may become available for writers.