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The Bookseller Hopes For a Swiftian Response to Amazon, But That’s Really Just a Distraction From the More Serious Issues

5296399306_5e77edde34_bTaylor Swift is making headlines again this week, and her influence is causing some to pine for a similar champion in the publishing  industry.

As you may recall, Swift posted an open letter to Apple which she protested the three-month free trial period for the upcoming Apple Music service. Apple hadn’t intended to pay royalties to labels during the free trial, but Apple backed down in response to industry protests.

Swift was just one of those who objected to the non-payment, but she was widely credited with influencing Apple. As one commenter at The Passive Voice put it:

Ah, but Apple is cool, and only those that buy Apple are cool and Taylor Swift is cool. So if Taylor Swift says Apple is not being cool — and is holding back her coolness in protest, Apple has to give in, least they lose their all their coolness and cool people don’t bother with their uncool music stab …

No matter whether Swift really has that much influence or not, it has led some in publishing to wish that  publishing had its own Taylor Swift.

Philip Jones penned a column today on The Bookseller asks:

Could a little bit of Swiftian kick-back help the book business too? It is worth contrasting Apple’s manoeuvre with the changes Amazon made to how it will pay indie writers signed up to its all-you-can-read Kindle Unlimited (KU) and the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL). The change (in brief) is that from 1st July authors with books in those schemes will no longer be paid their percentage of Amazon’s pool of money once 10% of a book has been read, they will now be paid based on what the number of pages read, after the Amazon-mandated "Start Reading Location" (SRL).

Similarly, one wonders how indie authors outside of the elite group feel about Amazon’s change in terms. Many were co-opted into Kindle Unlimited without prior request because Amazon felt compelled to move against Scribd and Oyster, and though writers can opt out, the fund from which Amazon generates payments (though it has risen month on month) is still entirely made-up. Now how writers get paid has changed too—and without any sense of their being any negotiation. It is an extreme scenario, but not one we should feel entirely comfortable about.

Jones' column crossed my desk only hours after I reported on the UK Society of Authors efforts to secure better treatment for authors, so I can’t help but wonder whether his focus is misplaced.

In recent weeks we have read about not one but two authors groups which have announced that they are actively fighting for better terms for authors. In addition to The Society of Authors, over here in the US The Authors Guild has started detailing the many outrageous boilerplate terms in the standard publishing contracts.

TAG has called the industry on non-compete clauses (preventing authors from writing elsewhere), interminable contracts (preventing authors from walking away), long payment cycles, and many other exploitative contract terms.

And Jones thinks we need a Swiftian response to Amazon, but not the publishing industry?

While any reasonable person would agree that the payment terms for Kindle Select could be better, the rest of the KDP Select contract is in almost every other way superior to the standard publishing contract.

5268143326_f4d52a92d1_bWouldn’t authors benefit more if, for example, James Patterson wrote an open letter to the publishing industry and demanded better terms for all authors?

I think so, but I also know that’s not going to happen.

And I can tell you why.

I’m going to cut through the bullshit and tell you what is really going on.

Never mind the coverage in the mainstream media; that’s just the smokescreen.

And never mind the post Jones wrote over at The Bookseller; that too is just a smokescreen.

I know that the Swift-Apple story is framed as Swift striking a blow for artists, but it really isn’t. She won a fight for the industry, not the artist, and anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous.

If she really wanted to fight for artists she would be fighting inside the music industry (instead of championing labels' ability to price albums), making a public spectacle over contract terms which are even worse than what authors get in the publishing industry.

But she won’t.

Swift isn’t going to rail against the music industry any more than Patterson would attack publishing. They are both superstars of their respective industries, and that superstar status depends on the industries. They understand this, and so they won’t rock the boat.

As we saw when Patterson got involved in the Amazon Hachette dispute last fall and again when Swift took on Apple, the superstars will only use their status to fight external enemies, but they won’t lend their status to fight homegrown problems.

Never mind that this effectively makes the superstars allies of the worst actors in their industries; they’re still not going to rock the boat.

It would cost them to much to do so.

Yes, I am accusing them of acting solely in their best interest; I’m fine with that because I never expect anyone to act any other way.

Are you?

images by books_authors, avrilllllla

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fjtorres June 23, 2015 um 7:41 pm

Try this:

Also, Swift is a very, very smart lady who knows her success makes her a target among her peers so spending a wee bit of brand power taking on Spotify and Apple inoculates her against criticism for keeping her big money-makers out of those services. The story becomes that she wants better terms for everybody, rather than just better terms for herself.

Very, very smart.
Especially if she *does* want better terms for everybody; doing good is great but being seen doing good is better because she won’t always be top dog and banking goodwill for a rainy day is good strategy.

Syn June 23, 2015 um 9:42 pm

Speaking of TAG. I wonder if that was the first time they’d actually even read the publisher contracts. You’d think they would know this stuff by heart.

fjtorres June 23, 2015 um 9:49 pm

No. Most of their movers and shakers are 1%-ers.
The last "industry standard contract" they saw was in the last century.

Kaz Augustin June 23, 2015 um 9:51 pm

Ref the we’ll-pay-by-the-page-from-now-on: this is hilarious and resembles an arms race more than anything. I haven’t bought into this, because I feel gaming KU is nothing more than showing contempt for readers, but all this will do is shift those KU-gamers to a different tactic.

I predict they will start using the stylesheet to hardcode the default font to something like 20pt size (minimum). Short stories will explode out to 150 pages. Novellas will resemble "Lord of the Rings" in digital thickness. And Amazon will be forced to either start paying by the word or disregard a book’s stylesheet before loading it on their site. Or, they may lay down the law with an "Amazon" stylesheet that everyone must use, amid howls of protest about "interference", and much use of the word "evil".

Of course, lost in all this is actual, y’know, book quality. And both Amazon and the KU-gamers are guilty of that. But, to a lesser extent, that seems to be how the landscape of publishing looked even in the bad ole days. (They weren’t all "Lord of the Flies".) Nothing has changed but the number of warring nations and the speed of adaptability.

Mackay Bell June 23, 2015 um 10:24 pm

You can’t game it by using a bigger font. Amazon does through out the stylesheets and calculates pages by what what an average sized font would lay out per page.

Yes, it rewards line returns.

So you can game it a little if you write like this.

But if readers give up on you, and stop turning pages, it won’t do you any good. Ultimately, it’s probably as good a way of gaging book quality (at least in terms of making readers happy) as possible.

Kaz Augustin June 24, 2015 um 4:15 am

Thanks Mackay, I didn’t know Amazon already vets the stylesheet. In that case, I look forward to the next tactic on the part of the KU-gamers. I’m sure it’s going to be novel. (Hee hee…get it?)

As for "readers"… hmmmm, who are they again, and what do they have to do with the important business of Making Money? 😉

MSR June 24, 2015 um 3:43 am

I am so out of step. When I read the blog headline, I thought it might be a reference to Jonathan Swift, not Taylor!

Mind you, if we’re lacking a Taylor we’re lacking a Jonathan just as badly.

m daniels June 24, 2015 um 3:52 am

maybe its easy to to take a swipe at Amazon but harder to take a swip at the poeple who pay your wages. The Bookseller has long been 'in the pocket' of the publishers without any formal agreement. It simply is about who pays for the ads, whi subscribes to the rag and one only has to look back at the Google Book Settlement, original agency deal and other misplaced moves and where the Bookseller stood on these when they happened. Yes they should help the fight to make authors get a better deal but will they – afaird the answer is to follow the money?

David Gaughran June 24, 2015 um 6:45 am

Some serious concern trolling from Philip Jones here. If he genuinely gave two hoots about authors' welfare, he would cover the Author Solutions story instead of brushing it under the carpet.

Nate Hoffelder June 24, 2015 um 6:53 am

Of course he doesn’t care. Go see the comment section of his post.

David Gaughran June 24, 2015 um 6:54 am

Oh, I commented 🙂

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