Business Musings: Fighting the Wrong War

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I know some of you are going to ask me what I think of the latest Authors United letter, the one they’ve just submitted to the United States Department of Justice.  For those of you who don’t know, Authors United—a group of New York Times bestsellers—have chosen to speak for all of us…in demanding that the DOJ stop Amazon’s monopolistic practices, because Amazon is ruining the book business.


There’s so many things wrong with the Authors United letter that it makes my brain hurt. Writer Joe Konrath has fisked the letter on his blog, putting a lot of time and effort into debunking almost everything in the letter. Writer Joe Konrath. Bestselling writer Joe Konrath—in case you missed the point.

I’m not going to replicate Joe’s work. He’s fighting The Stupid, so the rest of us don’t have to.

I’m also not going to defend Authors United. I really wish those folks, some of whom were writers I respected (note the tense), would learn the business of publishing, rather than listen to their agents and publishers, who have a different set of concerns than the writers themselves.

Double sigh, as I remind myself to take my fingers off the keyboard until I can refrain from joining the melee….

Back now, calmer.

Here’s what I wish: I wish that writers had business sense. I wish that they would then use their collective multimillion dollar clout to fight the real war, the one that the music industry is slowly turning its attention to.

I’m pretty sure that no writer besides me noticed this headline on National Public Radio’s website on Tuesday: Is Transparency The Music Industry’s Next Battle?

My answer to that question would be a resounding yes. And after that, perhaps someone can tackle transparency in the traditional publishing industry.

Transparency. What does that mean? It is actually a financial term, with a specific meaning. Financial transparency means that a company must make information as clear and accessible as possible for its investors and business partners. There are a million explanations of financial transparency on the web, but my favorite comes from the Investopedia, which has this sentence in the middle of its four-paragraph explanation of the term:

Transparency helps to prevent the corruption that inevitably occurs when a select few have access to important information, allowing them to use it for personal gain.

So, when artists in the music industry are asking for transparency, they want to be able to track the royalties and other income that artists are due, in an easy and explainable way.

Because of the way that the music industry evolved, it’s hard to achieve easy and explainable. The music industry is infinitely more complex than the publishing industry. A November 24, 2014 article by John Seabrook in The New Yorker succinctly explained this complexity better than I could:

Spotify is only one of many streaming sites. There are competing services like Rhapsody (which recently bought a rebranded, fully licensed Napster), Rdio, and Google Play Music, but there are also thousands of other sites where songs are streamed. Labels, publishers, and performing-rights societies struggle with dozens of different technologies to monitor this welter of outlets. And with any given stream of a song there is a myriad of copyrights—performing and mechanical rights apply to both the recording and the composition—which makes sorting out who’s owed what no easy matter.

That’s just one of the issues in the music industry and payments. It doesn’t help that Spotify and other streaming services are paying a fraction of a percent (sometimes as little as .0003 cents) for each stream, nor does it make things any simpler when the streaming service deals with millions of streams.

A single song—a single title—can generate payments that go to the recording artist, the record label, the holder of the song’s performance rights, the writer of the music, the writer of the lyrics, and others as well, depending on various deals and agreements. These deals and agreements might be contractual (between an artist and a record label). They might be mandates from certain organizations (like ASCAP). They might come from terms of service (for those artists not attached to a major label). And they might come from the major record label’s agreement with the streaming service.

Then there’s this complexity, also written in that New Yorker article:

AM/FM radio pays the writer of the song on a per-play basis, but gives the performer and the owner of the recording of the song—generally, the record label—nothing. On digital streaming services like Spotify, the situation is nearly reversed: the owners of the recording get most of the performance royalty money, while the songwriters get only a fraction of it. Songwriters, who can’t go out on the road, are particularly hard hit by the loss of publishing royalties.

There are other deals as well—how much an artist (or a copyright holder or a licensor) gets paid for each CD sale, how much they get paid for each paid MP3 download, how much they get paid for vinyl sales, how much they get paid for performance (such as a live show), how much they get paid for permissions, and how much they get paid for derivative works. If you don’t understand what I mean by permissions and derivative works, then get thee a copy of the Copyright Handbook, because prose writers deal with derivative works all the time.

Here’s a shorthand way of understanding derivative works. A new song by Charlie Puth, “Marvin Gaye” featuring Meghan Trainor, clearly references many Marvin Gaye songs. The Gaye estate had to be paid for those references in one way or another, through copyright. Here’s the video, (which is good but surprisingly [at least to me] not diverse). [youtube][/youtube]

And since we’re talking about revenue streams in the music industry, this video represents another—all the income connected to the music video itself.

Think of this complexity, when you contemplate the revenue streams on your one novel. You wrote the novel, and yeah, you might have put it up on various ecommerce sites yourself, so you have a handful of revenue streams that you can keep track of.

Some writers just publish to Amazon, and have a single revenue stream. When that revenue stream gets disrupted, the writers complain loudly. (That’s why those indie writers are complaining about the changes in Kindle Unlimited.) To keep up our music analogy, it’s rather like a band that plays in a local bar, and when that bar closes (or decides it wants other bands playing there instead), the band complains rather than trying to get gigs elsewhere.

If you move to other places besides Amazon to sell your single title, then you have multiple revenue streams on that title. Those of us who have freelanced forever learned the first rule of freelancing is to have more than one revenue stream, because the single stream can close literally overnight.

The complexity for writers grows with the number of titles that you publish. Each title, published on multiple sites and in multiple formats, has multiple revenue streams. Not just streams for subscription services like Oyster, but through the digital sites like Amazon and iBooks, and through print, and audio, and podcasting, and a dozen other licenses.

And that’s just the indie work. Hybrid writers like me have titles in channels we can’t monitor easily. Any book still licensed to a traditional publisher has multiple revenue streams, some of which I control and some of which the traditional publisher controls.

That traditional publisher reports on those revenue streams twice a year, a throwback to the origins of the publishing industry, when all of this stuff was done by hand.

And those books aren’t the only titles that are licensed to other entities. I have published short stories through traditional channels, novels through traditional publishers, a bundle that started this week, a bundle that will start in August, preorders on two novels right now, books I’ve edited, books I’m writing/editing, and on and on and on.

The bookkeeping for my writing business alone is complicated.

Then toss in my husband’s work, since he has been writing as long as I have, and suddenly, the accounting for our two writing businesses becomes nightmarish. (And that doesn’t count the accounting for the other businesses we own. Even the retail store (which we’re expanding to another later this year) has easier accounting than writing does.)

Dean and I have been searching for software that will track all of the writing income and more, but we can’t find any. It doesn’t help that we’re on Macs and the handful of things we’ve found are only for PC. But even the PC software won’t give us a clear picture.

Some writers I know have reinvented the wheel and have found an accountant and/or programmer and/or bookkeeper who can handle all of this, with a lot of data entry—by hand, data entry. But that still doesn’t help with the traditionally published stuff.

Figuring out what’s going on with traditionally published work is truly a nightmare, because traditional publishing is not transparent, in any sense of the word.

Sure, writers get paperwork from our traditional publishers. At the beginning of July, Dean and I each got over 50 sheets of paper royalty statements for some of the tie-in novels that we wrote in the 1990s. We could sign up for the online version of those royalty statements, but we haven’t done it yet. I think we’re being passive-aggressive: we’d rather have the publisher spend the money to print out the things than do it on our own.

Most traditionally published writers also have agents, and have a traditional relationship with those agents. That means the money from all of the various revenue streams funnel to a single point—the agent—who removes his 15% before sending the rest of the money to the writer.

You’d think that financial relationship would be transparent, but it is not. In fact, in all the years I had agents, not a single agent ever sent an overall yearend statement, delineating all of the financial transactions that we had throughout that year. Hell, I just got a financial transaction statement from my veterinarian because we spent quite a bit of money there these past two months. And it was a monthly statement of account.

No agent has ever done that for me, and I’ve had several agents from some of the biggest agencies in the business. Think on that, and look at that Investopedia quote again. Then add 2+2, and see what you come up with.

Most traditionally published writers have no idea that it’s so very hard to keep track of revenue streams on a single book title, let alone on dozens or hundreds or (as in the case of agents and publishers) thousands of titles.

Even with computerization, it’s tough, because you need a dedicated program to handle all the number crunching.

Let’s look at the music industry again. I examine what they’re doing for two reasons. First, they’re about ten years ahead of publishing in digital management; and second, if innovation is going to come on tracking rights and royalties, it’ll come from music.

Have the artists in the music industry come up with an easily accessible computer program to handle all the rights and royalty information?

No. In fact, it’s so complex that a single program can’t handle it easily. Again, from last fall’s New Yorker article:

Not surprisingly, companies that specialize in digital royalty collection constitute one of the hottest growth sectors in the music business. Among the leaders is Kobalt, founded, in 2001, by Willard Ahdritz. Part collection agency, part music publisher, and part tech platform, Kobalt has built a system of enormously complex Oracle databases that compute billions and billions of transactions and royalty lines from all over the world, and collects on behalf of some two thousand artists, including Paul McCartney, Maroon 5, and Skrillex, while the rest of the industry uses Excel spreadsheets to try to piece everything together. On YouTube, Kobalt’s proprietary song-detection technology, ProKlaim, detects unclaimed videos for its clients. Ahdritz says, “We create transparency, which drives liquidity, and the money is now flowing.”

This part is worth repeating: enormously complex Oracle databases that compute billions and billions of transactions… It’s not easy, in this modern world, to track music. And it’s getting harder and harder to track what’s going on with fiction titles as well.

Add to that the fact that the publishing industry, like the music industry, is deliberately opaque. No artists in the publishing industry have gone after the entire industry for its lack of transparency.

Until Tuesday, no one in the music industry had gone after that transparency in an organized manner either. But Tuesday, the Berklee Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship released a study on transparency and fairness in the music industry. Here’s how the press release describes the study:

…the culmination of a year-long examination of the $45 billion global music business [that] explores the underlying challenges within the current compensation structure while proposing solutions to improve licensing, revenue transparency and cash flow for musicians.

There are a lot of recommendations here, and a lot of things that traditional publishing could adopt—or writers in traditional publishing could adopt. I have downloaded the study, but haven’t yet read it. I scanned it yesterday, and decided it was too complex, and too important, to skim. I need to spend some time with it.

If you care about the way that income gets reported in the publishing industry, you should spend some time with this study as well.

Because, as the founding managing director of BerkleeICE, Panos Panay, says in the press release:

There’s a revolution happening in the media business today, and in some ways the creative class has been a passive observer. The matters addressed are critical for all creators…

Writers and the publishing industry are so far behind the music industry on this that we’re fighting about stupid stuff, like trying to stop Amazon. The Author’s Guild had one moment of clarity in May, when it announced the Fair Contract Initiative, and I had hoped the Guild was moving to sensible fights. Sigh.

Of course, even the Fair Contract Initiative is behind the times. It’s something that an organization like the Author’s Guild should have fought for fifty years ago. But the Author’s Guild, unlike many music organizations, is toothless. The Guild has no clout at all (even though it thinks it does), and others in the industry can easily ignore it.

As the Berklee study points out, the artists who handle their own finances and don’t go through what the study calls “intermediaries” like record labels have a better understanding of what the income is from music.

Those of you who are indie published can keep track of what you earn with greater ease than traditionally published writers can. The problem isn’t with the transparency of Amazon or Barnes & Noble or other retailers. As I’ve said before, these large organizations with public stock are governed by very strict laws, some of which address the need for transparency for investors.

The problem for indie writers comes in the amount of data, as I mentioned above, and trying to keep track of all of it.

The problem for traditionally published writers is the same as the problem for musicians who have chosen to go through labels to market their work. As the study says repeatedly:

Data provided to artists and writers with these royalty payments is often opaque. As a result, they often don’t understand the payments and accountings that they receive. One reason for the opacity may be that it benefits intermediaries—Fair Music: Transparency and Payment Flows in the Music Industry, P. 3

It has been shown time and time again, in industry after industry, that when information on income and earnings is controlled by a single source, that source will bend the information to benefit the source, not the others who also earned the money. It’s not that the source is venal (although it might be). It might simply be inertia or long-existing habits and structures.

Unless pressure comes from the outside, that source will not change because it has no incentive to change.

So rather than contact the DOJ about Amazon with a complaint that completely misunderstands both the law and business, perhaps Authors United, the Authors Guild, and those who claim to care about authors’ rights should start arguing for greater transparency—from publishers, agents, managers, and anyone else who gets revenue that should go to writers.

It’s time that writers act like real business people, and start putting pressure on the organizations who control our income.

Traditional publishers have already gotten into trouble with the Department of Justice for bad business practices. It’s not hard for anyone who understands business to believe that organizations which have already proven that they’ll break the law to have a business advantage will break the law in other places as well. Companies that are willing to cut corners will look at the most vulnerable parties first, and in publishing, those parties are naïve writers, who expect honesty and get none.

Neither the music industry nor the publishing industry has an internal reason to change its reporting structures. Those structures also benefit agents, no matter how much they complain to the press. Because a lot of agents skim. Some do it on the float, by holding money in interest-bearing accounts for as long as a month—which is, by the way, perfectly legal if the writer has agreed to it in a contract. Other agencies actually skim by “losing” payments or by taking a larger percentage than they deserve.

Even if individual agents believe that the system must change, the company they work for, the agency, will not take on this fight. It’s not in an agency’s best interest either.

Writers have to do it. And the big names should stop wasting their time and what little clout they have with things that have nothing to do with the sharp decline in traditionally published writer revenue, and go after the thing that actually has impacted writer revenue: the way that this new digital income gets reported.

I suspect I’m preaching to the choir on my blog here, and nothing will happen. But here’s my hope: someone, somewhere, will organize the big names and some writers organizations into doing something useful, like demanding that publishers have modern financial accounting to their writing partners—and not the online “reports” that some publishers have reluctantly posted. Things like this, also recommended in the Berklee study:

It should be fairly straightforward to give creators access to an app or Web page that electronically accesses real-time, in-depth, and comprehensible royalty information about their sales or plays on these platforms— data that can be reported to provide useful analytics, similar to an online banking platform—and that could conceivably offer a suite of banking services to creators if transparent revenue data was accessible. —Fair Music: Transparency and Payment Flows in the Music Industry, P. 7

I know, I know, I’m dreaming. In a world where Big Name authors believe that the platform that sells most of their books is harming them, expecting sense is probably not logical.

Ah, well. I am putting this idea out there. I do hope it makes a tiny difference.

I know this business blog makes a difference for writers who have taken back control of their writing business. So many of you have let me know how the blog has helped, or made you feel less alone. I greatly appreciate that.

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“Business Musings: Fighting the Wrong War,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo Inc. /DrawShop

20 thoughts on “Business Musings: Fighting the Wrong War

  1. Here’s what I wish: I wish that writers had business sense. I wish that they would then use their collective multimillion dollar clout to fight the real war, the one that the music industry is slowly turning its attention to.

    I’m pretty sure that no writer besides me noticed this headline on National Public Radio’s website on Tuesday: Is Transparency The Music Industry’s Next Battle?

    Actually, we should all be looking at the Movie industry as well. There’s been an amazing number of lawsuits over the last twenty years over Movie Industry accounting. In some cases a contract was signed with large payouts if a movie ran a profit, and the movie industry made sure it didn’t by playing with the books. There are lawsuits for other reasons as well, but all of the reasons involve money which never made it to the creative types.

    But it isn’t just movies. The entire entertainment industry (which includes book publishers) has seen an amazing number of lawsuits over cash.

    It may be cliche, but where there’s smoke, there’s often fire.

    Effectively what is needed is the ability to call for an accounting at any time.

    When Kris is talking about Transparency, it needs to be extended not just to the data the company supplies you, but also to the corporate systems. There are companies which do certification checks on companies, and certify that they operate within certain parameters. Something like that is needed for the Publishers, Stores, etc. The company may be honest, but their system might have issues.

    Writers, musicians, etc. need to get aggressive about money. You are in this for your health, and your health requires regular Florida vacations!

  2. Kris, those itemized account statements from the veterinarian were wonderful to have when I was dealing with over 20 barn cats with various health problems. Everything they did was listed, including (God bless them for their compassion) the “professional courtesy” zero charges. Can something like that happen in an industry like publishing or music? Dreamer that I am, I think the answer is yes. I just hope that it is done by a self-policing oversight committee (consisting of content creators and publishers) instead of by government mandate.

  3. This is great, Kris. Thank you for the summary of what’s going on in the music industry. You read everything so we don’t have to. 🙂

    This whole transparency issue needs to be dealt with firmly and consistently. Example: every 6 months I have to have the same conversation with a foreign rights agent, and the agent treats it like a new conversation every time. No, I don’t just want the royalty statement from the in-country agent. Yes, I want the backup royalty statement from the publisher. No, don’t worry about translation–I can handle it. I want to see the publisher’s numbers.

    I could give up and stop bothering, but it’s my asset generating this income, and I want to know everything about it. If I owned rental property I would want to see all the information about the rent and expenses (and not just get the property manager’s bill), and my intellectual property is no different.

    Information! We deserve it and need to keep on top of it, even when it means bugging people who are so clearly bugged. Too bad. My property.

  4. In the midst of this post you write, “Dean and I have been searching for software that will track all of the writing income and more, but we can’t find any. It doesn’t help that we’re on Macs and the handful of things we’ve found are only for PC.”

    I’m a programmer and a Mac user, and while I’m not promising to do anything with the information I’d like to know what you and your readers would wish to see in such software. What are your must haves, your nice to haves, and your blue sky dreams?

    1. James, I’m going to ask Dean to comment, since he’s been working with some other programmers trying to figure this out. He knows where the bugaboos already are. Thank you for the query. Other folks, please chime in.

      1. James,

        Wow, it would be difficult at best to describe everything needed. Let me do some just general.

        It would need to be a program that would sort the downloaded files from a dozen different sites, all in different formats, combine all the data per title, per sale amount, gross and net income, as well as give totals and be able to sort the data.

        On the surface, when I put this challenge out four plus years ago seemed simple to many programmers. Two I know actually managed it but one started a business that required everyone to turn their personal income information over to be sorted. Nope. The other one is working great but only for PC computers. A third programmers who thought it would be simple spent a good year and is now working privately for a growing indie publisher with about 300 titles.

        The reality is that this is far, far from simple. The base issue is that the files from every site are different and often need to be converted. Fields in every site are not named the same, not even some books are listed the same, since some list by title, others by partial title, others by a sorting number before title, still others by authors then titles.

        Some distributors have fields in their data that no one else has.

        This task is an easy thing at five or ten titles. WMG Publishing has 530 titles at the moment and growing by five or more titles per month on slow months. We have almost twenty cash streams with some or all of the books selling on the cash streams and all generating reports.

        And WMG Publishing also does all the other stuff that Kris mentions such as bundles, sales, and other kinds of promotions that take distinct discounting and tracking and some of the sales are only through one or two channels at any given moment. Plus WMG is starting to sell secondary rights and recombining some titles into new titles and so on and so on.

        There are numbers of growing indie presses, small and mid-range presses like WMG Publishing that have no help in this area.

        And for the presses that thought in the start it was a good idea to add in royalties (we had learned that lesson back in the 1980s to not do that), the accounting just gets even crazier.

        It seems on the surface like such an easy programming task, and I think the basics are. But like many things in publishing, crazy complicated is the case here without a full-time person or a very expensive program that I do not think even exists in the big traditional publishers, to be honest.


        1. Okay, you’ve described two separate hard problems. To be blithe about it, the first is “getting the data in” and the second is “getting the data out.”

          Getting the data in is actually two problems in itself, identifying the incoming data fields and then mapping them into a standardized data format. The mapping is relatively easy to program a general tool that let’s you, the user, handle setting up new data sources, so that’s doable. I’m more concerned about identifying the incoming fields. If the incoming reports are “computer friendly” this isn’t too big a problem either, but I imagine many of them aren’t. Computer friendly would be things like XML or CSV (Comma Separated Values). The alternative is things like text files formatted to look like printed reports, PDF files, Microsoft Word files, or web pages.

          Can you give a ballpark figure for what percentage of reports you would want to ingest are in computer friendly formats?

          I tried doing some Googling to find example reports and got nowhere. Do you have (or know where I can get) sample reports that don’t contain sensitive information?

          Would it be of any use to you to have a program that just did the scraping and normalization of data into a file that can be read by an existing reporting/accounting program? (Normalization is the process of, e.g. converting the full and/or partial titles in the incoming reports to the standard identifier that your accounting program wants.) Do you even have a program on the Mac that is letting you “get by” on the accounting and reporting (and if so, what is it)?

          1. I actually looked into this problem, James, as a professional programmer.

            It’s a solvable problem for sure similar to the integration work I did during the first part of my career. The problem, and the reason I decided not to go ahead, is that you’re dealing with a dozen different companies who are liable to change their data formats at any time.

            At which point you’ve got a broken program.

            Really it’s a problem for a small company not an individual programmer and it would take time away from writing which is my first choice always at this point in my life.

            I can’t understand why draft2digital doesn’t create a program for this as they’ve already done a large chunk of the work…

          2. I’ve read Dean and Kris’ posts on this before, and had similar thoughts to you about the potential “ease of solution”. Each report from company x1, x2, x3 are initially definable and thus can lead to a definable macro for conversion, updateable, revisable, accurate. Even to some extent with computer friendly or OCR-possible conversions.

            However, when I thought about it a bit more, I wondered if I might not be tempted to frame the question in three chunks, rather than 2. Phase 1 would indeed be “data in” and require a lot of macros to convert formats from various sources as Dean outlined. Jumping to the end, Phase 3 (the reports) is a bit of a red herring in my view as it will be controlled by Phase 2 — the engine. Any engine that can process the data, store it, manipulate it, etc will allow “reports” on various fields with summaries. Reports are relatively rudimentary programming to do at that point. Way back in the day, when I was at university, one of my first computer assignments in COBOL was a reporting app that would allow expense entries for a family of 4, 3 different months, 10 different types of expenses, 2 different currencies, etc. with ability to take the input in form 1, process it and generate multiple reports, and spit them back in different formats. The input and engine were hard, the reports were easy.

            IMO, for the engine though, people think “no one else has this for publishing or music rights therefore I need a custom solution”, or a way to get it to a generic tool like a database or a spreadsheet. However, and I don’t mean this as a slight against Dean or Kris to imply that they haven’t thought this through or wrestled with it enough, my instinct would not be to find a custom solution or spreadsheet options, but start with an existing / established commercial solution being used for something more generic.

            Advanced accounting software generally might be the solution, partly as they are designed for reports and links to tax modules and government report requirements. However, I think investment portfolio tracking programs, which often already have various tools for pulling info from multiple sources and formats, would be a more likely engine.

            In both cases (investment or accounting), they are designed to track revenues from multiple product lines or financial products. They also often allow multiple currencies, trend analysis, abilities to link to special types of costs associated with only certain products (treated as discounts for example).

            I expect Dean has already wrestled with those types of solutions and found them wanting, but that may in part of been the inability to get the data into the engine, rather than the engine itself. Just a thought that I was left with when I played with some of the parameters about 2 years ago when I first read one of Dean or Kris’ posts about it, so I share it in case it helps spark something in the design process.

            1. As you say, “Phase 1 would indeed be “data in” and require a lot of macros to convert formats from various sources as Dean outlined.”

              The basic problem is that these macros would need maintaining. And as the number of data sources, the amount of maintenance increases until someone basically has a full-time job just keeping the macros working. The only way around that is for a (small number of) industry standard to be adopted, otherwise the system just doesn’t scale.

              And that’s almost inevitable, eventually. And the owner/user of such software will have a great advantage at that moment, as long as they managed to weather the “macro storm” up until that point!

        2. About twenty years ago the four automakers (this was before Chrysler bought AMC) worked out an ecommerce standard for the OEM parts businesses. This meant any parts manufacturer who was selling to GM could use the same software to sell the Chrysler, Ford, or AMC.

          It wouldn’t be that hard to develop something similar for the book business. The problem would be getting the Big Publishers to adopt it.


    2. My wish list:

      Easy configuration of import filters for when retailers change their reporting formats (or the software doesn’t have a preconfigured filter for the retailer), platform independence (my company, for example, runs Linux on all its machines), non-cloud-based, easy chart report design and/or good preconfigured templates for tracking performance (ex: by title, author, series, retailer, etc.), the ability to enter hand-sewn and direct sales, the ability to print those charts and reports, and robust financials export for tax and bookkeeping purposes.

      The hell of it is, this should be doable with a Java, php, or python front-end in a lightweight Sql database. The import filtering is the stickies psrt, with the reporting configuration a close second. But I’d pay good money for a gizmo that does the above without locking my data up, putting me in the cloud, or suckered me into a SaS deal.

      Feel free to drop me a line if you want to pursue the convo further. I’ve been spec’ing out this thing for years now.

      1. Mostly see my comments on Dean’s reply above, but I’d like to add a couple of notes to your specific points.

        On “platform independence,” as a Mac user I’ ve mostly found that to be a synonym for “lowest common denominator” and if I wanted LCD, I’d be on Windows instead of Mac. I love Linux for the back end systems, which is where I make my living, but I’ve never been happy with it for the front end.

        I tend to agree that something SQL would be good for the data storage, but I’m not so sure “simple” really fits. When you start getting into the reporting complexities that Dean suggested, things where a given title is receiving revenue as a standalone product and as a part of a bundle, and where that title may have been a collaboration where you need to split revenue and for that bundle you may need to split revenue first for the bundle and then secondly for the collaborator. And maybe for some versions you’d like to track monies being split with an illustrator but for other versions not, but you’d still like to see your share all totaled together. Potentially the data model could be complex.

        1. James —

          So, quick hits on the various points:
          Given the train wrecks I’ve seen in the platform independent world, I can certainly see your angle. On the other hand, there are a number of incredible, very well done cross-platform apps. Frequently, the better ones tend to be programs that don’t need to hook down into the driver layer or need specialized toolkits in order to function splendidly, so the viability depends a lot on the spec of the program going in. Thinking of this as a database front-end app, that’s the kind of thing that can lend itself very well to platform independence (even to the point of running inside a browser to act upon a local db server).

          But, on to the more salient questions:
          The data formats for almost all retailers are available in CSV. A handful come in XLS. So far, nobody’s tried to pawn a PDF or a text file off on anyone, near as I can tell. Though, for those, the ability to hand-input oughta cover the gap and keep the problem small unless that becomes the design fad of the moment on the part of retailers.

          A scraping and normalization program would definitely be useful. My ideal would be a program that just dealt with scraping, normalization, and reporting by title and retailer (i.e. so I could track performance trends, etc), and then spat out the title-level information to a CSV for use in an accounting program. This would keep the program modular and modest in scope, filly the hole in the ecosystem, and allow it to slot in without disrupting the rest of the business, regardless of how that business is configured.

          FWIW. Would love to hear more of your thoughts!

          P.S. My apologies for the autocorrect mangling in my initial reply. Obviously, hand-sewn should be hand-sales, and similar.

          P.P.S. Second apologies for vagueness re: “simple database.” I should have said “simple database program” as a way to connote that the higher-level functionality included in transactional databases wouldn’t be necessary for this kind of system, not to imply that the database design itself would be simplistic. Sorry for the confusion.

          1. I spent almost 17 years at a company that was doing Internet banking and had to create the interfaces to talk to the different systems that the banks had. Some of those were absolutely horrible (more than you think ended up with us plugging into a serial port on their system and using the same app a teller would use)

            So it’s doable, and it’s also the sort of thing that scales well. There are a lot of writers who need this sort of service, but a much smaller number of places to get it from (a relatively small number of publishers/agents).

            creating one interface is trivial, just about any programmer can do it. Creating a system that will work well across the boar is much more difficult, both from a programming point of view and from the business logic point of view (and the security of such a system is also very ‘interesting’)

            Since this is the sort of thing that is dealing with changing interfaces all the time, it really would work better as a ‘cloud’ or Software as a Service company than something to run on people’s local systems. The ability to detect problems and fix them rapidly requires that the company be able to see the raw data and do the conversions. This is not a “write once and sell it” type of situation.

            The issues would be creating a company that could generate sufficient trust for people to let them manage the data and getting someone with sufficient experience in dealing with all the information to build the programmers so that the resulting data is what is useful for the writer.

    3. James,

      As a Mac-using publisher who shares this need with Kris and Dean, I would suggest having a look at a PC product called DashBook, which was designed by a couple guys from Houston. As it was designed for small presses and self-publishers, it has what I consider the best setup of anything I’ve seen so far. That doesn’t mean it’s bug-free, and it’s not terribly user friendly if said user isn’t good with tweaking templates and spreadsheets. My biggest complaint is that it doesn’t handle direct sales without my having to jump through too many hoops. Or design my own template.

      Nevertheless, something like it that addresses the missing utility of the PC program would be ideal.

  5. The part I genuinely don’t understand is how these organizations can ignore the voices of thousands of writers. Do they think Indies don’t count? Ursula Le Guin implied that authors who “publish on Amazon” are just wrongheaded. It seems they dismiss thousands of writers as just lost and confused and pretend they aren’t there.

  6. Terrific post. I’d also love to see transparency in contracts. Amazon KDP, B&N, Kobo, Smashwords, iTunes–they all have terms of service for their self-publishing arms that anyone can read. We Not only can we track sales and money, but we all know that everyone else has the same terms.

    Bestselling authors signing NDAs so they can’t reveal their bonuses, escalators, or royalty rates, is icky. Sure, on one hand, it’s nobody’s business what anyone earns. But on the other hand, unless we have some kind of transparent standard, no writer can ever know if they’re being treated fairly.

    Agents have some of this info. They make different deals for different clients. Wouldn’t it be beneficial if the AAR started posting contracts–without using the author name? Or what if they released monthly reports on which publishers have the most favorable terms?

    This isn’t going to happen, of course. It serves publishers well to keep reserves against returns, and release incomprehensible royalty statements only twice a year. And most agents don’t want to bite the hand that feeds.

    Authors, however, could change things. If we post our contracts, our terms, our sales figures, be could add data to the pool that will help everyone.

    I think this is doable. It would require work, and money. Maybe some dues-collecting writing guild could use the money their wasting on fighting piracy, and work on a model for all to see.

    I’m not holding my breath.

  7. These Author organizations are a joke. They take the cowards way out and blame Amazon. That’s so lame.It’s like they are scared of the publishers. They know what goes on and yet sit there and do nothing but be puppets for their publishers. This is why I will not go traditional. There’s too much fudging of the paper work.
    I would consider like you do, submit to magazines. That’s short term but with the publisher, they want it all. The sad thing is too many writers give it all to them and that’s why we don’t get anywhere. The tech industry is moving faster than we can keep up. It’s going to get harder to keep track of it all I think, even for indies in the future.

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