I just want to riff briefly on a challenge; I am still thinking about what might be a solution, or even an approach to a solution.
Here’s the challenge. We need some creative dealmaking between authors and publishers. The partnership is getting more complicated.
Publishers (will always) need authors and (most) authors (still) need publishers. They have to work together in a way where their interests are aligned.
In the world we grew up in, the royalty and rights-sharing book contract mostly accomplished that, although not perfectly. International rights and sales of the English language edition are a challenge, for example, because standard deal terms and practice have often made it more profitable for authors to have their rights sold to local publishers in each market (whether they do it themselves or have it done by the originating publisher and share the royalties) while it is more profitable for publishers to keep the book within their company if they have a global presence, even if they sell fewer copies in many markets.
There’s also an “end of life” issue where publishers’ and authors’ interests don’t match. Because publishers extend almost all of their marketing efforts to about-to-be or just-published titles, a book that has slowed down to a crawl after it has had its run is very seldom going to get back up and run again at the publisher that owns it. But a new publisher, with new interest — even if it were a smaller and less powerful one — can sometimes generate new sales.
For years we’ve had as a default an out-of-stock trigger, by which an author can notify a publisher if the book is out of stock (which in and of itself seems a bit crazy) and then, if the publisher doesn’t put it back into stock, it is considered out of print and rights will revert. If a publisher is holding substantial stock on a book, they might remainder it and put it out of print themselves. (The remaindering seldom yields any revenue for an author, by the way.) Or they might not. And if the publisher is holding very limited stock, there’s no incentive to kill the book and the publisher might happily fill 10 or 20 orders a year until the stock runs out.
Over the years, savvy agents have negotiated more stringent arrangements, such as a reversion of rights when sales go below a certain number, say 200 a year. Big publishers have often agreed to something like that because those sales would be insigificant to them. But there’s an increasing reluctance to do that now because print-on-demand offers the ability to keep every book available forever without inventory and the long tail and electronic life online present the possibility of even more revenue. This is probably going to become an increasingly contentious “small point”.
This is complicating life from what it was before, but it’s not a sea change, it’s a tweak. Here’s the real challenge.
Publishers are in the process of discovering that we’re in a shift from a product-centric world to a community-centric one. The new challenge arises from the fact that it is simple to pay royalties for sales of a product; it is a lot harder to pay somebody for their contribution to a community. Here’s a real-life example.
A publishing friend asked me a couple of years ago how to make the best possible digital use of a science fiction encyclopedia he was publishing. Since I am (self-)”trained” to think “content is bait to attract community and community is what you need to survive”, I had a ready answer:
“Put the encyclopedia on a dedicated science fiction community web site for free. That will bring you the traffic you want regularly. Then turn the encyclopedia into a wiki available only at a registration layer. Those who register can improve and grow your encyclopedia. Material can ‘graduate’ to the openly-available free layer either by vote of the community or by decision of the editors. And, by the way, you’ll get lots of great content for the next edition.”
Great idea, don’t you think? But it couldn’t work. The publisher had secured online rights to the content by agreeing on a revenue split with the authors for it. So if it was to go on the web, it had to be a “subscription” product, with attributable revenue, or they couldn’t do it. Of course, a subscription to a static web product is not likely to be the most commercial proposition.
This really requires a new kind of deal for the authors, giving them a piece of the developing sci-fi community. I am not sure how else you could reward them fairly, because the publisher really would be using their content as bait to create something larger. But since the publisher himself wouldn’t yet have a clear view of how the community will be monetized (and neither do I, by the way), that’s a hard deal to make. But it would defnitely be in the author and publisher’s best interest to find a way to collaborate this way.
The end of this story is pretty predictable; only the timetable is in doubt. There will be a sci-fi community on the web (there are many right now, some built around book publishing imprints) that will create its own crowd-sourced sci-fi encyclopedia, perhaps springboarding off work wikipedia has already done. When that happens, not only will that site get the benefits I was suggesting my friend’s house could get, the published encyclopedia will stop selling nearly as well in book form too. And if there is still a market for such a product as a book, they’ll suddenly have strong competition from something that can be created from the website. In fact, people would be making SharedBook copies of it.
We need to work out a better answer. Maybe dividing the profits on the SharedBook edition(s) could be a start.