Business Musings: Traditional Publishing Stupidity

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I’m in the middle of putting my “Rethinking The Writing Business” posts on licensing into a book, having blown past my deadline because I require sleep every now and then. It looks like I’ll have that, plus the additional chapters and material, done within two weeks….

If the world would get out of my way.

I mean it. Seriously. Every time I look at the news, I see something that will impact writers. And/or something that will illustrate a point I’ve made in one of my other blogs.

Last week, I absolutely had to discuss the disruption we’re all feeling worldwide with COVID-19 (the coronavirus, as it is commonly known).  The disruptions I was predicting have finally hit the arts community in the U.S. hard with the cancellation of South by Southwest in Austin (and for those of you who have contributed to Storybundles that support AbleGamers, you will see the disappointment from our friend Steve Spohn, who was going to be honored there).

That single cancellation alone will cost the city of Austin (and its residents) at least $353 million, not counting the impact the closure will have on individual businesses with loose connections to the city or to the arts community, like moviemakers who were finally going to have something premiere and spent years setting that up. Buckle your seatbelts, folks, because we have several more weeks of this before we know how it will all play out.

The COVID-19 news has had an impact on all of us, but there’s been other news as well. (Gasp! Really? Yep.)

Two traditional publishing news stories caught my eye, primarily because I blog about contracts all the time, trying to convince writers to stay away from traditional publishing contracts for their books—or at least to negotiate the hell out of those contracts. If you want to see what I write about, click this link or pick up a copy of Closing The Deal On Your Terms. Writers who know what they’re signing are better off that writers who don’t. (And writers who avoid the big traditional publishers and self-publish are better off than both of the other kinds of writers.)

The first story to catch my eye was about Ronan Farrow, who rose to fame through his nonfiction about Harvey Weinstein. All of this was at the beginning of the #MeToo Movement, which still continues. The book Farrow wrote, Catch and Kill, was one of the fall’s big books. It’s also a hell of a read.

It was published by Little, Brown, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, which did all the right things to promote the book. Hachette set up the proper media coverage, got Farrow on many talk shows, sent him on the right kind of book tour, and started the buzz early. Farrow’s editors and his media team Got It. They took the moment, and used it, in a way traditional publishers almost never do.

This week, Farrow announced he was leaving Hachette because he couldn’t work with them in good conscience given a book they planned to publish in April.  An imprint of Hachette, Grand Central, acquired a book by Farrow’s father, Woody Allen, titled Apropos of Nothing. Farrow’s sister, Dylan, has credibly accused Allen of sexually molesting her when she was a child, and Farrow has backed her up. He even documented the allegations in Catch and Kill, a book that was heavily vetted by lawyers.

Allen’s book was not vetted. And it had been rejected by a number of other publishers because, in most of the entertainment world, Allen is considered as toxic as Weinstein. So when Farrow found out through media reports that Hachette was going to publish Allen’s book, Farrow tried to convince them not to.

Of course, that didn’t work. As the U.S. CEO of Hachette, Michael Pietsch, told the BBC, Hachette does “not allow anyone’s publishing programme to interfere with anyone else’s.”

In other words, Hachette, like the other Big 5 publishers, did not sign a non-compete clause demanded of the publisher by authors. If one author’s book competes with another, so what? Hachette can publish both of them. But in most cases, the author must sign a non-compete clause that states that the author can’t publish a book with another company that will compete with their own book from Hachette.

Patently unfair, and something I’ve urged writers to fight against for years.

Put it this way: If one of Hachette’s authors writes a bestselling thriller featuring augmented cats, and augmented cats become a trend, then the author can’t take another augmented cat book to a different publisher even if Hachette passed on the book, provided the author signed a standard non-compete.

However, Hachette could publish two dozen augmented cat books by different authors, even though those books would compete with and possibly hurt the sales of the book by the original author.

Farrow had no leg to stand on to get Hachette to reject Allen’s book. And in publishing terms, by the time Farrow discovered the betrayal, it was much too late. Hachette was a little over a month out from publishing the book. That means Hachette invested money in Allen’s book, in a promotion campaign, in copy editing, design, and printing costs. If the book’s run was a standard run for a minor bestseller, Hachette had invested about half a million dollars in that title by the time Farrow found out about it.

No company would pull the plug on a book that late in the game because one of its authors complained.

Unless the author had standing, a sterling reputation, and 968,000 followers on Twitter.

Farrow’s comments reverberated through the industry and made headlines worldwide. On Thursday, employees of Hachette staged a walkout, protesting the publication of Allen’s book. They hadn’t known about it either (many of these imprints don’t talk to each other about purchases).

The news story wasn’t going to go away. It was large and it would get larger by the time the book dropped on April 7. In fact, when the book dropped, the protests and Farrow’s opposition would have been all that the media would talked about. Hachette Book Group’s reputation would have continued to take a hit. So, the question the bean counters had to answer was…was that hit worth the half million that the company had already spent on Woody Allen’s memoir, or would Hachette lose twice that amount (or more) in bad publicity?

The answer came swiftly. On Friday, Hachette canceled Allen’s book. Not because of contract terms, not because Farrow had any right to ask the company to live up to some mythical co-equal non-compete clause, but because publicity forced the company to pay attention to their own idiocy.

The Farrow story shows traditional publishing at its most hypocritical. Pietsch’s comment about not allowing one author’s publishing program to interfere with another’s is patently untrue. And his comments later, that Hachette “protects” their authors, is also false.

This entire event shows the kind of cold calculation that the people at the top of big publishers make about publishing. They demand that authors sign contracts that will actively harm the authors’ careers while refusing to sign the same kind of agreement themselves.

Contracts are supposed to be equitable agreements between two equal parties. Contracts are not that in traditional publishing, as I have written about many, many, many times.

So I had to stop here and actually gloat when a publisher finally suffered the fate that it has forced hundreds of its authors into—making a business decision that will cost it both in reputation and earnings because of a pre-existing agreement.

How many writers have been told to stand down from a contract they signed with a competing book publisher? How much money have writers lost because publishers want everything? The number is unknowable, bcause most authors don’t or can’t discuss their contract terms (yet another bad contract term authors sign).

So here’s me, hoping that Hachette loses more than half a million on this debacle. And here’s me, hoping this news story doesn’t go away for a long long time. (Although, of course it will, because of COVID-19 and elections and attention spans. Sigh.)

And here’s the other news story of the week that cuaght my attention and, apparently, a lot of yours as well.

ViacomCBS has decided to sell one of its assets, the Big 5 traditional publishing company Simon & Schuster. ViacomCBS’s Chief Executive Bob Bakish said during an appearance at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telcom Conference that his company wants to divest from S&S. And then, he added the phrase that many of you flagged in your comments to me:

“[Simon & Schuster] is not video-based,” Bakish said. “It does not have a significant connection to our broader business.”

The man is an idiot. He really is. And that’s a good thing for writers.

S&S’s contracts are relatively draconian. Almost all of the contracts S&S had its authors sign in the past twenty years license most of the rights in the book, sometimes on a non-exclusive basis, sometimes on a right of first refusal basis.

In other words, the books aren’t video based, but they could be. Easily. They could be the basis for all kinds of visual properties, with only a tiny cash outlay—and given how dumb writers can be and how awful many of the S&S contracts are—maybe no cash outlay at all.

Bakish is selling a gold mine, and he’ll probably do it for a song.

But he does have a problem. It is a problem that exists in all of the Big 5 publishers.

None of these companies has good records of the rights the companies licensed from their authors.

In other words, to keep a company like this, ViacomCBS would need to hire some staffers, pay them a pittance, and have them spend a year or two putting all of the contract terms in a spreadsheet, along with a tagline about the stories.

Vampires with movie rights reserved for S&S or Vampires with no movie rights reserved, but cheaply and easily licensed.

Strong Female Protagonists …same as above. And on, and on, and on.

Fortunately for writers, S&S hasn’t done this. Nor have the others in the Big 5, so exploiting those rights (and screwing the authors) becomes exponentially harder.

So hard, in fact, that some guy like Bakish, who is tasked with making his company profitable, doesn’t know that he should keep S&S, invest less than a million in organization, and then put those assets to work for his company.

Nope, better to sell of the property and make some cash right now.

I’m both shaking my head at his—and his predecessors’ and his colleagues’—stupidity while also shaking a little in my boots. Because we’ve only just started to set up our inventory lists at WMG Publishing. So I know we’re behind.

But not as behind as S&S is. As one article noted, S&S publishes about 2,000 books per year. It’s been with CBS (before the Viacom merger) for 25 years, but S&S itself has existed since 1924.

Let’s assume much of the pre-CBS stuff is no longer under contract. (Not a safe assumption, but hey, it makes the math easier.) That means at least 50,000 book contracts need examining and then placed in some kind of inventory.

And no one is going to do that, because everyone in traditional publishing is too wrapped up in doing things the way they were done in 1980 than they are in making their company profitable for the 21st century.

Well, everyone except Amazon. Who, according to some rumors, is thinking about acquiring S&S. Amazon has a different business model than most traditional publishers, so it might actually do the inventory thing. Or not.

It doesn’t really matter. Because right now, the authors of those 50,000 books are protected by the ignorance of the Big 5.

So, yes, I’m telling you that Big 5 contracts suck. I’m also telling you that they don’t know what’s in those contracts. The companies have no institutional memory, and don’t know what they have licensed, and what they’re entitled to.

Does that mean you should sign with them? Hell, no. Imagine if your books are caught in this merger thing. Or if you are honorable and keep all the terms of your contract while your publisher pisses all over your work (the way they did with Ronan Farrow).

Stay away from them. Learn how to publish the books yourself. Evnetually, set up your own publishing company and do it right.

Then learn how to exploit all aspects of your copyright, and see the writing business for what it is—an actual business.

Oh, wait! That’s the theme of the book I’m finishing this month.

Yeah. I’d better get back to that.

Just thought I’d gloat a little at traditional publisher/publishing business stupidity, before I disappear into my own publishing work again.

Sometimes the news is such fun. If you only know where to look.



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“Business Musings: Traditional Publishing Stupidity,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / andrewgenn.


5 thoughts on “Business Musings: Traditional Publishing Stupidity

  1. Have you seen this? “The Lessons of Media Bankruptcy (or, Sad Anniversary, F+W Media!)

    Pretty sad, but not surprising.

    “On the first anniversary of F+W Media’s bankruptcy filing, nearly 8 months after I left Writer’s Digest on the verge of being handed over to its opportunistic new owners, I have some lightly seasoned thoughts about what I learned from the experience.”

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