Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Simon & Schuster Issues A Letter

Simon & Schuster issued a letter yesterday in response to the brouhaha created by the Authors Guild last week. Here's the letter. I've numbered and bolded the places where I have a comment. My comments will follow the letter:

To Our Colleagues in the Author and Agent Community

The Authors Guild has recently perpetrated serious misinforma-
tion regarding Simon & Schuster, our author contracts and our commitment to making our authors' books available for sale. Unfortunately, these distortions were released by the Authors Guild without their having undertaken any effort to have a dialogue with Simon & Schuster on this topic.

In recent years, Simon & Schuster has accepted, at the request of some agencies, contract language that specifies a minimum level of activity for print on demand titles. Our experience with the current high quality and accessibility of print on demand titles indicates to us that such minimums are no longer necessary. Our position on reversions for active titles remains unchanged. (1) As always, we are willing to have an open and forthright dialogue on this or any other topic.

When considering this issue, we ask you to please keep in mind these important points:

  • Through print on demand technology, publishers now have the ability for the first time in history, to actually fulfill the promise which is at the core of their contracts with authors--to keep the author's book available for sale over the term of the license.
  • We view this progress as a great opportunity to maximize the sales potential for slow moving titles (2), and some of the best news for authors and publishers in a long time. The potential benefit for all concerned in incremental income for the publishing partnership far outweighs any imaginary negatives purported by the Authors Guild.
  • We and others are investing heavily in digitization so that authors and publishers can reap the maximum benefit of publication over the long term. New technologies including print on demand will extend the life of a book far beyond what has been possible in the past.
  • Contrary to the Authors Guild assertion, using technologies like print on demand is not about "squirreling away" rights, not does it mean that "no copies are available to be ordered by traditional bookstores." Print on demand is simply a means of manufacturing a book, making it widely available to retailers and consumers. (3)
  • Publishers must and will continue to invest in sales and marketing organizations that work on behalf of its books regardless of how they are manufactured. Among the activities that publishers regularly undertake for backlist titles (4):
  • Keeping them available for sale everywhere books are sold, through brick and mortar and online stores.
  • Our Sales team regularly reviews inventory opportunities with all our accounts.
  • Distribution of online assets (covers, bios, synopses, chapters) and data feeds about basic information to both online and traditional retailers.
  • Books are cataloged and regularly featured and solicited in category promotions.
  • Re-promotion of books to tie in with seasonal and current events.
  • Re-promotion of an author's backlist titles together with new frontlist releases.

  • Print on demand, digital archives, and virtual warehouses support greater flexibility and effectiveness in making books available. Simon & Schuster has already had instances where a high level of sales activity of print on demand titles has led us to go back to press for larger quantities.

More importantly, we hope you know that we view authors and agents as our partners in the publishing process. We have always been open to discussion and negotiated in good faith at every point in the life of a book.

Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions.

--------------------------------------

My comments:

(1) "In recent years, Simon & Schuster has accepted, at the request of some agencies, contract language that specifies a minimum level of activity for print on demand titles . . . Our position on reversions for active titles remains unchanged."

Of the entire 568-word letter, these are the only sentences that I found interesting. This appears to echo their original statement last week, that nothing had changed.

Are they saying that the minimum threshold levels will be maintained for active titles? If so, has S&S been offering to use POD technology to keep certain titles in print once the publisher was unable to maintain the minimum sales thresholds in order to keep the rights??? If so, does the author have the right to opt in or out at that point?

If that's the case, then Authors Guild made a big flap over nothing. If that isn't the case, I can't make sense of this part of the letter.

(2) "Through print on demand technology . . . We view this progress as a great opportunity to maximize the sales potential for slow moving titles"

I find S&S's emphasis on POD technology very interesting. The fact of the matter is that POD technology does make it possible to print a single copy economically. However, five years after a book is released, POD technology is NOT going to bring that book to readers' attention. It's the combination of the POD technology AND the use of the Internet to market and make titles easy to find that is the huge break-through. But this letter only mentions the Internet in a very peripheral way by later references to online stores and retailers.

Additionally, I find it interesting that S&S narrows the "great opportunity" to slow moving titles. Why? A title that moved briskly a few years ago would benefit as much as a slow moving title by being kept alive.

When I was a child, my Uncle Frank performed as a magician and hypnotist. He explained to me once that most of magic is really misdirection. The reference to "slow moving titles" feels like misdirection to me.

(3) Print on demand is simply a means of manufacturing a book, making it widely available to retailers and consumers.

The first half of this sentence is absolutely true. POD technology is simply a means of printing a book.

The second half of this sentence feels like misdirection. Once the book is printed, it sits there. Its mere existence doesn't make it "widely available." Otherwise, why do publishers pulp and remainder their stock? They do this because there are not enough brick-and-mortar bookstore shelves or warehouse capacity to hold copies of all books indefinitely. Only on the Internet's virtual bookshelves is there room for hundreds of thousands of titles.

And even virtual bookshelf space isn't enough. There has to be something that drives traffic to that space on the bookshelf for the older book to sell. Without marketing, the book will sit out there in cyberspace forever. POD without marketing means nothing. Unless S&S commits to continue publicizing the book (and immortalizes that commitment in written form in a contract), having the ability to print one or two books has no special value.

(4) Among the activities that publishers regularly undertake for backlist titles:

This is a very neat bit of sleight of hand. They're not promising anything. They're saying that among the things they might do is yadda, yadda, yadda.

That's like me saying among the healthy choices I might make for my life is to run two miles every morning before breakfast and give up my 3:00 PM Weight Watchers cookies-and-cream ice cream bar every afternoon. And we all know how likely that is.

And therein lies my problem. Except for #1, the rest of this letter says nothing.

If S&S is saying that their future contracts for active titles will offer minimum threshold levels, but, at the point they cannot justify the minimum threshold level any more, they will OFFER the author the right to go POD with no promises, that's very different from what the Authors Guild said. Then the author is given the choice to pull her title from S&S and go elsewhere, or to leave the rights with S&S and take a chance that they'll promote it enough to sell.

However, if that's what S&S means, why not simply come out and say it--without all the rest of this mumbo-jumbo?

Something ain't right here.

Disregarding #1 for the moment, S&S sounds as though they want to retain rights without promising the author ANYTHING. Not a minimum number of sales per year, not a guarantee of promotion, not an indication that they will pay an additional advance, NOTHING.

They have given no explanation for why they don't want to offer minimum levels of sales per year in order to retain rights. If POD is this great panacea for publishing, why doesn't S&S put their money where their mouth is?

Why not change the language of the contract to say that they will maintain a threshold level of sales OR pay the author an additional advance to hold the rights? Then the author knows S&S has a reason to promote the book because their money is on the line. Then the writer might feel safe investing in S&S because--make no mistake--if an author goes along with a contract that has no date for reversion of rights, or no minimum sales thresholds to hold the rights, that author IS investing in S&S.

Personally I don't see the upside for the writer. Why choose to sign with S&S? They're asking you to accept on faith that they will promote your book while holding your rights. I might trust my father (were he still alive), but I'm not trusting a corporate behemoth that can't even write a straightforward letter.

This letter creates more questions than it answers. It feels like Bill Clinton parsing the word "is".

Hey, Simon & Schuster, you're digging yourself into a hole. This is NOT the answer you want to give the writing community. You need to talk in black-and-white, in a manner in which everyone can be comfortable they know what you're saying. This ain't it.

Oh, and by the way, making people write a snail mail letter to reach your corporate office isn't exactly a great example of "we have always been open to discussion" either. If I'm going to do that, I might as well send the letter to the president and CEO of your corporate parent, CBS (Leslie Moonves, CEO, CBS Headquarters, 51 West 52nd Street, New York, New York 10019-6188) instead. Or maybe to a member of the CBS Board of Directors listed here, using the same address.

I did send an email to your customer service department this morning. Funny thing. I noticed they've now removed the drop down choice of "feedback" (which was there last week) from their menu. Must be a computer glitch. I chose "order cancellation" instead.

7 comments:

Marie Tuhart said...

Maya,

You always seem to be able to distill the crap down to managable bites that all of us understand.

I read the S&S letter and went "huh" what are you really trying to say.

Thanks for the understandable version.

Maya Reynolds said...

Marie: I still don't know what they're trying to say. I suspect this letter was written by a gaggle of lawyers.

If you're not going to say anything, don't bother putting something out.

Linda Bell said...

Maya,

I enjoyed your post on S&S letter about future contracts and do not disagree, but have a few question and comment.

Q: What is the downside?

S&S is offering to keep the book available forever for free. They may not actively market the book (see my comments below), it will still be available to the public.

I don’t know how many times I discovered an author, fiction and non-fiction, and want to get his or her previous titles only to discover they are no longer available. Yes, I could go to one of the out-of-print companies, but that is more hassle than my desire for the book. But, if it had been available on Amazon.com, I would have purchased it.

Q2: 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)?

Q3: 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?

but I'm not trusting a corporate behemoth

After thirty years of working with and for corporations, I can’t disagree with this statement.

It does seem that S&S is trying to get more for nothing. And in some cases, I have no doubt that is the case.

But their advances on these future contacts (it’s my understand that this doesn’t, in fact can’t, affect any current contracts) may reflect the purchase of these rights.

Q3 And if an author knows that his or her book will be available in perpetuity is he or she not better served?
He or she knows as he or she writes book 15 in the series, that books 1 through 14 are available to new readers and that book 15 is in fact a marketing tool for the previous books.

Will S&S market the POD book?
Corporations main thrust is to make money. Especially as the number of POD books are available, it behooves S&S to market all of them as a genre in their our right: “Buy oldies and goodies.” Or as book 15 is shipped to bookstores have at least one copy of the previous books sent, too.


The rub comes for authors who are already signed with S&S. If it is saying that this applies to current contracts, they are breaking that contract. It seems to me, the POD rights need to be negotiated plain and simple. What each author decides has to be based on the current sale of his or her books. Does that author negotiate now while his or her books are meeting the rights reversion clause or wait until it is triggered? Such are the decisions each author has to make as a businessperson selling his or his product.

Paula said...

I'd like to add a word about the issue of electronic rights. Let's say someone finally comes out with a compelling, easy-to-use ebook reader and/or database a la iTunes, and the author wants to take advantage of the opportunity. If S & S retains all rights and won't digitize the book and make it available through ebook distributor(s), the author's hands are tied. Or am I missing something?

AstonWest said...

One of the major pitfalls of this is that some of the bottom-feeder POD companies out there will use this as self-substantiation in their communications to unsuspecting would-be authors. That would be a true tragedy.

Maya Reynolds said...

Paula: If there's money in it, I think it's a safe bet that S&S would release the book as an e-book. I know Penguin bought e-book rights along with print rights on my book.

Maya Reynolds said...

Aston: That's exactly the reason I refuse to call the vanity presses by the title "POD companies." They invented that title for themselves to give themselves legitimacy.

As long as people buy into the myth that they are print-on-demand companies instead of vanity presses, that kind of confusion will continue.

The only company that I know of that I'm willing to call POD is Lulu.com.