As we all know, on Saturday our understanding of the modern world was irreversibly altered when
Butler upended MSU to represent the Horizon League (Horizon League?!?) in tonight’s National Championship Apple released the iPad. To mark this occasion, the Times ran an interesting op-ed from nonfiction author Marc Aronson about paying for permissions in a digital age:
In order for electronic books to live up to their billing, we have to fix a system that is broken: getting permission to use copyrighted material in new work. Either we change the way we deal with copyrights — or works of nonfiction in a multimedia world will become ever more dull and disappointing.
The hope of nonfiction is to connect readers to something outside the book: the past, a discovery, a social issue. To do this, authors need to draw on pre-existing words and images.
Unless we nonfiction writers are lucky and hit a public-domain mother lode, we have to pay for the right to use just about anything — from a single line of a song to any part of a poem; from the vast archives of the world’s art (now managed by gimlet-eyed venture capitalists) to the historical images that serve as profit centers for museums and academic libraries.
Copyright issues and permissions are an age-old problem, but what makes Aronson’s piece interesting to me is his suggestion of how to fix this:
For e-books, the new model would look something like this: Instead of paying permission fees upfront based on estimated print runs, book creators would pay based on a periodic accounting of downloads. Right now, fees are laid out on a set schedule whose minimum rates are often higher than a modest book can support. The costs may be fine for textbooks or advertisers, but they punish individual authors. Since publishers can’t afford to fully cover permissions fees for print books, and cannot yet predict what they will earn from e-books, the writer has to choose between taking a loss on permissions fees or short-changing readers on content.
Putting aside piracy issues for a minute (or, heaven bless us, forever), this idea does represent one of the promises for an e-book world. I know from negotiating permission in the past that the current system is pretty much bullshit. I would always claim that we were going to sell something in the range of 75 copies of a particular title, the rights holder would still insist on a multi-thousand dollar fee that would exceed some author advances, and the whole process was fairly disturbing. Anything on a pay-per-piece model is appealing to me, since it actually ties expenses to sales and makes a book’s budget a little more logical. (Just a little bit, but still, in this industry, a little logic could go a long way.)
On the surface, the op-ed piece that FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi wrote for the Tiimes this past weekend seems pretty mundane. His main point seems to be that good editors at good publishing houses make good books better. Or more directly: publishers do more than simply print and sell books. They have special knowledge about book-world things that not many other people have.
All that is true. Absolutely. And I don’t think anyone would really argue with that. (We all know the value of a great editor, right? And although authors will bitch—they always bitch—about the amount of publicity their publicist is getting them, I doubt more than a handful of authors would really enjoy all the legwork that goes into pitching a book to reviewers, arranging a tour, etc.)
Even Galassi’s conclusion feels a bit tautological:
In this increasingly virtual age of open access and universal availability, it’s important for readers to keep in mind what it is that a publisher does for an author. A publisher — and I write as one — does far more than print and sell a book. It selects, nurtures, positions and promotes the writer’s work.
An e-book distributor is not a publisher, but rather a purveyor of work that has already been created. In this way, e-books are no different from large-print or paperback or audio versions. They are simply the latest link in an unbroken editorial chain, the newest format for one of man’s greatest inventions: the constantly evolving, imperishable book — given its definitive form by a publisher.
(Although I must admit, I’m a bit confused by the closing line. Is “man’s greatest invention” an imperishable book as produced by the publisher or simply an imperishable book? Is this some chicken-and-egg zen thing? Like there is no book that presupposes a publisher?)
To the general reader, this op-ed piece might not sound like much. But this is actually a pretty well-crafted statement about a couple of touchy e-book/future of publishing issues.
First off, in the very first paragraph, Galassi brings up the situation regarding the e-book version of William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. In case you’re not familiar with the behind-the-scenes positioning related to this, the basic story is that although Random House is the publisher of the print version of Sophie’s Choice, Jane Friedman of Open Road Integrated Media (and formerly of HarperCollins), bought up the e-rights and this will be one of the first e-books she publishes.
In response, Random House issued a blanket statement claiming that the “book and volume publishing rights” in their standard pre-e-everything contracts actually included e-book rights, thereby preventing estates from selling off e-book rights to some other publishers. Er, in Galassi lingo, “e-book distributor.”
Rather than jump into this legal fray and try and make a claim that, like the constitution, these old-school contracts are totally open to interpretation and subtle time-adjustments, Galassi instead appeals to the logic that without a great editor (and publicist and sales force and and and), Styron wouldn’t have been known for shit, and thus Random House should be the one to benefit from his success—in whatever form that takes. Remember, there would be no e-book if there weren’t first a print publisher.
This argument is definitely appealing. No one likes to think that they could do all the ground work on something only to have a third-party come along and profit off of your hard work and expertise. And the subtle move of making Open Road a e-distributor is kind of brilliant. In the court of public opinion, Galassi’s scoring some major points here.
And although it may not be as explicit, I also think you could read this piece as the beginnings of an argument about how e-books should cost the same as a print version. After all, the amount of editorial expertise and work that goes into producing an e-book is the same as what goes into the print version . . .
E-book pricing and rights issues are the 2010 battlegrounds, and this is a great foundation-laying piece for one side of the argument. Galassi is one of the best publishers in the business (and I say that not just because of his on-going commitment to literature in translation), and a pretty brilliant guy. And I know that I would be seriously pissed if someone came along and bought the e-rights to some of our books right out from under us and managed to make
thousands hundreds tens of dollars off of Kindle sales.
That said, the business world is the business world, and where there’s an opportunity to make money, someone is going to step in and exploit it. It’s the American Way. Right? And as sick as pure capitalism makes me, it only seems fair that authors have the right to benefit through new sales of their work that have opened up due to technological advances. Maybe if Random House, FSG, and the like offer their authors an incentive (a new advance just for the e-book sales?), the estates wouldn’t be tempted to sell the rights to an e-book distributor . . . Simply laying down a claim to these rights—solid argument and all—feels just a bit totalitarian and creepy.
Then again, that’s why/how these companies are making millions of dollars in profit every year . . .
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