Recently, Margaret Atwood cautioned the publishing business not to forget the central important of authors (read the interview in this piece from the Globe & Mail). How very timely.
At lunch last week I was discussing this issue with someone from the film industry. We were comparing notes about the ways in which our relative industries were developing. We came to the conclusion that we’re both headed in the same direction.
The big boys increasingly want the whole pie.
This is how their logic runs. Why pay royalties to bothersome authors, when you can keep all the income for yourself? Even better – why bother licensing a manuscript (that’s exactly what a publishing contract is) when you can own the whole caboodle… for ever?
That is absolutely the way publishing and the feature film business are both moving. The studios and major publishers increasingly want to own the core intellectual property. That right – it’s their copyright – not yours… even though you may have written it.
Work Harder, Slave!
What of writers, then, in this future scenario? Well, they’ll still be needed – a little. Hire them in… pay them for what they do… sack ‘em if they get uppity… then move on to the next project. The central importance of the writer is increasingly under attack. Soon, you’ll just be the nameless hired gun.
Hack writing has always been around, of course. There have always been naive writers willing to accept any deal just to see their name in print. You only have to think of nincompoops such as Jobie Hughes (a “minion” from James L. Frey’s “literary sweatshop” according to the New York Times) for a classic example of that.
You may be wondering, well – isn’t it Ok for writers to be minions – if they choose to be? Personally, I find the idea repellent.
Writers from Dickens onwards have fought for the idea that if you create something, you should own it. That notion will soon find itself under increasing attack.
Guns For Hire
Movies are increasingly franchise operations, and that’s the inexorable way Big Publishing will develop. In fact, dating back to the days of book packagers, this kind of approach has been slowly but surely gaining traction.
One company that successfully ploughs this furrow is Working Partners. According to their website, they create series fiction ideas internally, and then hire writers under “umbrella pseudonyms” to do the hard graft. And of course, Working Partners keep the copyright.
Working Partners are commendably straightforward about your chances of striking gold with them. “The upfront sums for each title are relatively small”, they say. “However, for writers struggling to find a publisher for their own work, we provide a great learning experience…”. Well, fine. if all you want from your writing life is a great learning experience- and that’s all that many writers obviously do want – then, great.
Let’s be clear about how the money works in these situations. Working Partners asks writers to produce work on spec, following the series concepts, storylines, and cast lists that Working Partners has already figured out. They then try to sell the project to publishers. if they succeed, they get an advance – in the same way as any author would normally get an advance from a publishing deal.
The difference is, Working Partners keep a goodly proportion of that sum for themselves.
And only a “relatively small” sum is passed on to the author. Finally, if there’s an agent in the chain, the agent will take their percentage of that “relatively small” sum… and hopefully, the agent wasn’t planning on eating that day.
To my mind, this type of arrangement is wrong. Most importantly, it fails to properly value the author. Its saying that the organisation that owns and markets the concept actually deserves more reward than the person who does the creative work – and in my book as an agent, that’s just plain wrong.
Not everyone agrees with me.
Philippa Milnes-Smith, a literary agent at LAW, is quoted on Working partners’ website thus:
“We have a number of clients who have worked very successfully with Working Partners not just on one but on many titles and several different series: we have enjoyed a good long term working relationship. In addition, for some authors it’s a first real – and often invaluable – introduction to the rigours of commercial fiction market, in turn helping them to develop their individual talent and skills.”
Sorry to say this, Philippa. But in my view, you shouldn’t be endorsing this type of working practice.
I’m sure Working partners are great people. I’m sure they are very ethical, highly talented and nice to their pets, too.
But that’s not the point.
The author should always be at the centre of the whole process – not some anonymous hack-for-hire. Sales agents such as Working Partners should be there to serve authors – not the other way round. Frankly, I’m surprised you don’t see this.
And you know what? I don’t believe this practice generally does justice to readers, either. As the New York Times wrote of I Am Number Four, it “reads like an assembly-line product, poorly written and thinly imagined.”
Yes – that’s because it is an assembly-line product.
Things To Come
I predict we’ll see Big Publishing increasingly claim ownership of the core intellectual property, and retain writers, where necessary, to do the hard stuff… i.e. to actually write the books. Only another ten thousand words this afternoon, and you’ll be done for the day!
This scenario is one that will continue to grow in the future and – ironically – its growth may even jeopardize external book packagers. As Big Publishing increasingly searches for profit, it will realize the economic value of keeping copyrights for themselves. It certainly won’t want external third parties to control them.
I predict this disrespecting of the authorial function – for that is what it is – will carry a heavy and unexpected price for those publishers foolish enough to pursue this path.
Not every publisher will go down this route.
The less corporate will not.
The publishers who value authors will not.
And – let’s not forget that authors increasingly now have a choice.
While years of indented servitude might once have been the only way to advance in any skilled profession, authors today have a myriad of options. They don’t need to work for your “relatively small sums”.
I think some publishers will understand this, and firmly come down on the side of the author. Others won’t. Same for agents.
Interesting times ahead.