We have the power

So this is the Authors Guild’s latest shot off their remote rampart.

Their point is that many, even most (and by most, we mean basically all of them) publishing contracts offered to writers incorporate a non-compete clause.  What is a non-compete?  In the publishing world, it effectively means that by signing this contract (which will be tied to one or more books that author will deliver to that publisher) the author can’t do work that will compete with the book(s) specified in the contract.

Some so-called lenient non-competes will simply require a writer to stay out of the same genre.  So if you’re a science fiction author, you can publish all the non-SF you want; but no SF until the contract is concluded.  Others will prevent the writer’s name from competing; meaning, if they publishing while the contract’s in force, they have to use a different pen name.  Of course, pen names are brands, and it’s not just a drop-of-the-hat sort of easy thing to up and create a new one that readers will read.  But then we get into what most non-competes look like, which say the writer can’t put any work out at all until the contracted book(s) have been finished, released, and been out for a certain length of time.

Publishers give all sorts of reasons for this.  They use words like “diluting” the market.  “Confusing” or “distracting” readers.

What’s really happening is it’s just one more way publishers are trying to control writers.  Which is, ultimately, what all the fuss and fury over the past five or six years has been about in the world of writing.

When you need someone more than they need you, letting them figure that out is a bad thing.  Letting them get into a position where they can act according to the power they have, if they realize it, is bad for you.  You see it when a large crowd gets pushed too far and charges the numerically inferior (police / soldiers / enforcers) that are trying to control them.  It happens exactly like that in real life.  Writers have used similar scenarios in stories; a good example is the end of Strange Days, where the crowd jumps the cops as they beat Angela Bassett’s character.  Sure the cops are ‘in charge’, but only because the crowd agrees to let them be.  When the crowd changes its mind, the deal changes too.

Tim Donaghy was an NBA referee, who became embroiled in a betting scandal; using his inside information from moving behind the scenes in the league, and being on the court for so many games, to pick winners more accurately than Vegas could from a further distance.  Vegas bookmakers are good at what they do, but they’re ultimately just super fans.  Their knowledge of what will swing or affect a game just can’t compete against someone who referees.  At one point, before the scandal blew open and the FBI got involved, Donaghy came to the attention of the mob.  They had figured out he was making winning bets, and probably even connected the dots, and they made him the classic “offer you can’t refuse.”  Donaghy, in interviews since, has said about that time when the mob had him, that he hoped perhaps the season would end, and they’d let him go and be done with it, and he could be left alone and not have to worry about himself or his family being the target of violence as a ‘convincer.’

Anyone who truly thinks the mob, had the FBI not tumbled to the whole thing and moved in, would’ve simply let Donaghy walk away, raise your hand.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  Anyone?  You, in the back; oh, you’re just scratching your nose.  No one believes they’d let him walk away if the betting could’ve gone on?

Why not?  Because they benefited, they profited, by having him under control.  When his bet picks were given to them, they could use them to generate a lot of money.  And were doing just that until the good times came to a halt.

For so long, for basically the entire 20th Century, publishers had this sort of power over authors.  If you were a writer – and weren’t already wealthy enough to pay up front for printing, pay for a sales force, pay to ship boxes of books, and pay for all the time it would take to convince individual bookstores to make your book available in their stores – you had one choice.  You contracted with a publisher.  It was that, or your story didn’t make it in front of readers who weren’t already in your immediate circle of acquaintances.  21st Century indie publishing has permanently altered that balance of power, and publishers are terrified as the house of cards begins to tumble.  Strong arm tactics like non-competes are becoming more and more common with each quarter, as sales figures come in and show readers aren’t shunning indie authors.  The market share of non-traditional authors continues to climb.

Hugh Howey, in a comment on his blog that was discussing a recent post he made about Kindle Unlimited, said he thinks publishers have realized the change is inevitable.  They’re not admitting it in public, but they have begun to admit it at least to themselves.  Howey feels it explains why we’re seeing ‘big name’ traditionally published authors being signed to long term contracts; the publishers are hoping to lock these authors into the old school system for as long as possible.

The non-competes are another example of exactly the same behavior.  Everyone agrees that knowledge of the future is generally valuable.  So many stories have been written around that very concept. In the real world, no one actually has psychic powers or time machines to let them look forward; but every industry has people who study and analyze it to make their very best educated guess as to what will come next.  If the old school publishing world has nothing to fear from the options 21st century authors have, they wouldn’t be so eager to lock those same authors into deals where everything has to flow through the publisher.

It has been said, writers write.  That’s what being a writer is; you are someone who writes.  Now, if one just wants to write for personal joy, go ahead.  Knock your prose out, stuff it in a drawer or a cloud drive, and move on with your life.  But professional authors, they write to get paid.  Ditch diggers dig ditches, insurance salesman sell insurance, and programmers program.  Writers write.  Everyone who does something professionally does so with the goal of getting paid.  It’s not a dirty secret, or a vulgar habit.  Good intentions and clever wit don’t pay rent or utilities or the grocery bill.  If you write for a living, you need to get paid.

A non-compete works against that on every level.  Traditional publishers move at a glacial pace.  They are protecting their legacy paper investments; all the printers and deals with printers they’ve invested in over the years.  Bookstores are part of this as well; it ties in to why ebook prices on the traditional side continue to rise.  By making ebooks expensive, the hope is it pushes people to buy the paper, and that they’ll do it through a bookstore.  This is supposed to keep bookstores happy, who are also terrified of change.  And, of course, ebooks are vastly more profitable than paper; all the cost of printing and shipping those physical books doesn’t exist in an ebook; so when the hardback and ebook are the same price, the ebook generates more profit for the publisher.  When the ebook’s more expensive, it’s just that much more profit when someone does buy the overpriced electronic edition.

Which brings me back around to the Authors Guild.  They say non-competes are bad for authors.  And they’re right.  Days late and dollars short, but, yes, right.  But here’s what gets me about the issue they’re trying to raise.  Here’s what makes me mad about them saying it’s a problem.

It shouldn’t even be an issue.  In fact, it’s ludicrous that it has to even be one.  Why do I feel this way?

Because all the power is with authors.

For this ‘issue’ to be resolved, all that has to happen is authors need to STOP SIGNING STUPID CONTRACTS.  If you’re a writer, and you sign something that legally prevents you from writing, you deserve what you get.  I could say meaner things, but we’ll just leave it at you made a bad decision.  Now, if publishers actually pushed books out, timely and at the pace of the 21st Century, I might feel differently.  Probably not, but I’m man enough to allow for the possibility.  I know numerous authors, and am getting to know more all the time.  It’s one of the primary reasons I decided to join SFWA; to interact with my peers.

Most of them write at a pace that far outstrips the two or three years it takes a traditional publisher to get a book from manuscript to in-front-of-customers.  Even when the marketing cycle, the cover art, editing, proofing, and formatting steps, when all the things that take a story from rough to finished form are factored in, most authors can still definitely be counted on to produce more than one story every twenty-four to thirty-six months (or longer).  On average, I’d say most professional authors can probably be counted on for about two novels a year.  Obviously some are slower, and others are faster; but two books a year looks like it’s about in the reasonable ballpark.

If you’re such an author, and you sign something that says you only get paid for one story every two or three years, you deserve what you get.  I can’t say it any nicer than that.  Lawyers have long since taken over the first world; and contracts are like garrison troops that ensure your compliance.  Cross the contract, and the punishment begins.

The only power publishers have is that which authors give them.  If publishers could do without authors, they’d ALREADY be doing without them.  If there was a computer program or a process or a magic wand or a ANYTHING that was cheaper than grudgingly paying authors a few cents on the dollar for stories readers want, that’d be how stories got put in front of customers by these companies.  Because, as the New York Times and other Trad Pub white knights insist on pretending isn’t the case, publishers are BUSINESSES.  They’re in it to make money.  In fact, as I see political and economic debaters pointing out all the time, American publicly traded businesses are legally required to maximize their profit.  Heard about any books that don’t need an author; ones that readers like and will pay for?

Yeah, neither have I.

Publishers need authors.  Authors don’t need publishers.  And that – once you hack and burn through all the flak and misdirection and Amazon Derangement Syndrome and strawman arguments and everything else that the trad side’s champions keep bleating on about – is the heart of the problem.  If that weren’t true, the old school wouldn’t be working so hard to use every trick they can think of to prevent the change.  They wouldn’t be trying to push consumers away from ebooks; they wouldn’t be furious about Amazon and what it’s doing with KDP; they wouldn’t be so incredibly terrified of the indie publishing sector.

If authors stop willingly submitting to the old school, it dies.  And that’s what it is; submission.  A willing grant of authority that hasn’t been earned, isn’t being handled honestly or in a mutually beneficial manner, and doesn’t yield any investment gains for the author who offers his or her neck for the boot.

It upsets me that the AG wants to ‘deal with this issue’, because it shouldn’t be an issue.  Don’t sign something that means you can’t earn a living from your writing.  If you’re a writer, you need to be writing.  You have fans.  You have customers.  They want your next book.  They want to buy it.  They want to read it, talk about it, share it with their friends.  They want to get you to sign it, listen to you give thoughts about it at conventions and on your blog and anywhere else they can have interactions with you.  And they want the next one too.  And the one after that.  Every book you put out, you’ve got people out there that are looking for it.  Every book is another chance for new readers to find you, and each of those could be someone who starts picking up some or all of your back catalog.

They can’t do any of those things if you’re not publishing.  If your work’s not getting out to them, they can’t do any of those things.  But there are so many other authors that are getting books out.  If you’re not one of them, if you’re limiting yourself to one book every few years, whenever your publisher decides to actually get the thumb pulled out and push the go button . . . how is that a good thing for you?  How does that help you?  How does it help you build a fan base, grow as a storyteller, and earn a living.  How?

I keep my ear to the ground as best I can in the publishing world.  I’m a writer, so it’s in my best interests to stay current on the news and happenings and events that impact my profession.  I’ve heard every argument, every position point, the ‘old school’ and its defenders put forward as to why the traditional side is necessary, why it’s better. How it’s so hard to handle your own marketing, how picking cover art is so tough, how it’s just impossible to find a good editor, oversee proofing and formatting, how uploading a file that’s gone through all those difficult phases to an e-tailer or Print-On-Demand company is this enormous stumbling block that can’t be crossed alone.  I’ve heard those arguments, and I discount them.

But even if you don’t, I challenge you to give me a counter-point that justifies signing away your right to write.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.  Take your time.

By the way, while you’re working on that, me and the other indies I know are about to put our next books out.  You know, like you say can’t be done without the help of a publishing company that’s going to own our copyrights in perpetuity, control the distribution of, price out of the range of a lot of potential customers, take seventy or eighty (or MORE) percent of every sales dollar for, and that’s going to sit on what little amount of royalty they’ll grudgingly pass on for one or two, even three sometimes, quarters before allowing the check to be cut and sent.

Oh, and while you’re working on that counter-point, don’t forget your day job.  You know, the one you have to work to pay your bills.  Sure, you’re ‘validated’ because you’re a traditionally published author with a Big Five logo on the copyright page of your book, but you still ask people if they want fries with their meal.  Because one book every three years, that pays cents on the dollar, doesn’t pay bills unless you’re in the top 1% of the publishing company’s regime of authors.  You 99%ers, most of you aren’t getting advances that you can live off of while you wait that long.  You sign that kind of contract, you’re not a writer.  You’re a <fill-in-occupation> that is occasionally allowed to write a little.

Are you a writer, or an employee?  If you want to be a writer, then BE one. The power is yours.  It’s ours.  It used to be theirs, but that time has passed.  You have options.  They don’t.

What AG misses in their ‘raising of the issue’ is it’s such a simple thing to fix.  There is nothing the publishing companies have to do to change; none of them have to be ‘convinced’ of anything.  This isn’t a problem like the Middle East or where Greece and Europe have to negotiate a solution; the trads can ignore authors completely and we can still fix this problem with a guaranteed success rate.

All that has to happen is for authors to stand up.  We have the power.  There is no industry without writers.  There are no galaxies far far away, no once upon a times, no happily ever afters, and no days saved, without us.  We’re the ones who make it happen.  Everything else relies on us.

Start acting like it.