Business Musings: Untapped (Part One)
This year, I found the spring television upfronts oddly exciting. A lot is changing in the media landscape, so much that I have trouble keeping up. Plus, as you all know, my summer was filled with moving and a boatload of deadlines.
But a phrase inspired by the upfronts kept going through my mind. As I mentioned in “Heads, Sand, and Traditional Publishing,” part of my fear-based decision-making series in June, a comment by JP Colaco, head of ad sales for WarnerMedia caught my attention.
Television execs are acting on this. They’re becoming platform agnostic (which raises its own problems) and they have learned, because of the pandemic, that people want to watch good television. They don’t care if that program was produced in 1980. They will binge whatever appeals to them.
Which is why the upfronts were so odd this year. A few networks didn’t even push their fall line-ups, which used to be essential for ad revenue. Now, these networks are pushing their platforms or even, at times, their older programming, trying to pair up the right ad with the right program in the right way so that consumers will see it all.
What I wrote in my blog was that, for publishers, IP should be the new frontlist. Rather than promoting the new books and titles at the expense of everything else, traditional publishers should be mining their backlist for items that will capture the moment.
For example, let’s take the pandemic. (Please, as the old comedians used to say.) If publishers had been smart, they could have combed their backlist for stories of survival in the middle of a plague. Or maybe a few books that would make us all feel better about the extent of the pandemic we’re currently in. With just a little time on the Google (as a friend calls it), I found a dozen lists of good plague literature. None of the lists were published in 2020, by the way.
Here’s one that has books by Octavia Butler (with a novel first published in 1984, and a paper edition of 1996 that seems to be OP), Mary Shelley (with a novel that has an in-print edition), and about eight others, some of whom have their plague/pandemic in print and some of whom do not.
The point isn’t whether or not the books are still in print—although that’s part of this argument. The point is also that the publishers themselves should be putting books like these out as part of their front list, books they’re throwing money behind so that readers know about them and buy them.
Because of my crazy summer, I decided to wait to write this small series of posts until the fall. By then, every time I looked at the title of this blog, which I had listed as “IP is the New Frontlist,” I had forgotten where I saw the original quote. I had, instead, thought that some savvy book publisher person had said that at a book conference.
I decided to wait to see if publishers took any action on this before I wrote about it.
Shows how dumb I can be.
In those months, as the TV/film industry continued to alternately reel and innovate because of the pandemic and the impact on that entire industry, the book industry decided to pretend that nothing had happened in 2020—except an election here in the States and an insurrection in January of 2021.
They commissioned new books to deal with all of those things because—to be fair—no one had time-traveled to the future to write books on those things in 2019.
But publishers didn’t look through their inventory to find books relevant to those things. I have some books in my personal library, books on impeachment, on the U.S. Constitution and on the 1850s, which provides a rather terrifying roadmap for where we are now.
Publishers also didn’t look for books on health and wellness to keep people sane in lockdown or tons of classic literature on plagues and pandemics or incredible escapist fare for those of us who wanted to think of anything except death and dying.
To show you how little traditional publishing plans, the Bridgerton tie-in edition for Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I, which was the basis for the first season, didn’t receive any promotion or advertising. The book released on December 1, but when I searched for it around December 15, I couldn’t find it. Avon put no money behind it.
They thought the series was going to tank.
That’s so different from the way most TV or film tie-ins are treated. Some of that was pure bigotry—traditional publishers make a lot of money on romance novels, but never think of them as anything other than garbage.
But some of it was sheer ineptness. It didn’t matter that the show was being produced (and shepherded) by Shonda Rhimes, who seems to have a golden touch with what she does. Nor did it matter that the show was on Netflix, which promotes the hell out of everything.
Avon saw a 20-year-old book and thought that putting together a tiny tie-in edition was more than adequate. It was so in-adequate that I couldn’t find the book two weeks later.
Friends overseas couldn’t get copies at all, and were begging for copies from the States. Then, when the book took off, it took a while for Avon to realize they needed Bridgerton editions of the whole series.
The book sales were skyrocketing and the books were increasingly hard to find. That’s terrible planning on the part of Quinn’s publisher. I’m sure Avon knew the TV show was coming; they just didn’t think a backlist series was worth their time.
I really did think, though, that someone in traditional publishing would catch a clue about the value of their IP. Afterall, I’m hearing so many rumors about a potential fire sale of Simon & Schuster—which shouldn’t happen (not as a fire-sale) because of their incredible back catalog. I’m also hearing that some of the traditional publishers are on very shaky ground. Again, they’re not properly exploiting their IP.
And then there was an essay (?) a review (?) an article (?) in Mystery Scene (?) that I read in my jumbled summer about the short story Edgar award winners. Apparently, no one has done a complete collection of them in…a long time. Maybe forever.
What caught my attention, though, was the mention of Leslie Ann Brownrigg, who had won the Edgar for best short story in 1964 and so far as the author of the piece I read knew, had published nothing since. The author had had to go to great lengths to even find this story that the Mystery Writers of America had deemed the best of the year, finally finding it in some obscure place (lost to my memory). The only reason I knew it was Leslie Ann Brownrigg was because I remembered that the Edgar was for best short story in the 1960s, so I scanned and found the one name I didn’t recognize, and then looked her up…finding nothing.
You’d think award-winners would be collected and feted. You’d think that classic novels would remain in print.
You’d be wrong.
In fact, of the 62 books that won Australia’s Miles Franklin Award between 1957 and 2019, 23 are currently not available as ebooks, 40 are not available as audiobooks, and 10 are not available anywhere, in any format whatsoever. They’re officially out of print.
However, the publishers still have the rights to almost all of those books. And, as Mark Williams says in the New Publishing Standard piece that led me to this article,
…for countries like Australia… and the US and UK and countless other vibrant book markets, sitting on rights with no intention to make use of them is little short of criminal, not to mention business-stupid.
As I followed the chain of links in this story, I discovered what inspired The Guardian to write about it. An organization banded together to save Australia’s literary heritage, and provide digital versions of “important” books to the country’s libraries.
The organization is called Untapped: the Australian Literary Heritage Project. They only have funding to handle 200 books, which has to be a drop in the literary bucket. When they started, they weren’t not even sure what they mean by “literary heritage.”
To find these books, the Untapped team appealed to Australian booklovers to nominate “culturally significant” works that were out of print but still in copyright, leaving them stuck, floating in book purgatory. A panel of library collections experts winnowed the list down to about 200 titles, then the project team started the painstaking work of contacting each individual author and negotiating rights. Matt Rubinstein of Ligature Press was brought on to break down and scan the physical books.
Let me say as someone who has chased copyrights and tried to negotiate the rights for out-of-print works for authors living and dead, “painstaking” doesn’t begin to describe how hard the work that Untapped is doing actually is. The work is confusing and difficult and different for every project.
And they found a problem that has become a problem here in the States too. Publishers often contract for the life of the copyright (author’s life + 70 in Australia), but take the book out of print long before the copyright expires.
…in Australia, authors’ rights are governed entirely by publishing contracts. [Rebecca] Giblin [Associate Professor at Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne] says these contracts don’t always protect authors the way they should. “We spent 18 months studying half a century of publishing contracts from the archive of the Australian Society of Authors. What we found was a dog’s breakfast: poor drafting, a failure to keep up with technological change, and important protections missing altogether.”
So now Untapped is also looking at ways of getting better protections for authors who are traditionally published. More power to them. I hope it works. But it’s going to be too little too late for a lot of writers and writers’ estates, which is why I stress to regular readers of this website that they learn copyright themselves and never ever ever sign such bad contracts.
Mark Williams is completely right: to let these works go out of print is a crime. Especially since fiction usually doesn’t date. And even when it does, it’s the details that date, not the story itself. (Think of how many classic novels you read in school that had archaic language but a fantastic story.)
I had hoped that by this point in the year, traditional publishing might look at its sales figures from the pandemic, especially in fiction. People aren’t just binging old TV shows; they’re also binging novels published years ago—particularly series. Which means that the backlist—the old titles—should get a little love and some promotion.
If traditional publishers actually looked at their balance sheets, they’d realize that, but they’re not doing so. And while film/TV had an awakening in 2020, traditional publishing did not.
I’d like to say I’m disappointed. I’m not. It would be good if traditional publishing doesn’t realize what it has, so that writers can get their rights reverted.
What I’d really like to see is that writers themselves learn the value of their IP. Traditionally published writers need to wake up and figure out how to get their rights reverted—and then publish those books themselves.
Not that such a thing will happen. Those writers have had ten years-plus to figure this out, and most of them don’t even want to try, let alone think about it.
But indies—that’s a different story. And too many of them are caught in the new-new-new treadmill. Time to step off that.
We’ll discuss how to change your thinking from new to new-to-you in the next post.
So that, unlike traditional publishers, indies don’t squander their digital opportunities.
The whole world is open to us. Time to accept that, and think about everything in a brand-new way.
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“Business Musings: Untapped,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / nanDphanuwat2526