Posts Tagged ‘authors guild’

Authors Guild V. Google: Questions And Answers

December 31, 2015

Today The Authors Guild announced that it has petitioned The Supreme Court to review its ongoing lawsuit against Google Books for illegally copying and distributing copyrighted books without the permission of the copyright holder (the author). The lower courts have ruled against The Authors Guild. My personal   feeling (I realize this is kind of old fashioned in the Internet Age) is that people should be compensated for their work. And the work of the writer is as deserving of compensation as the work of – say – a person flipping burgers or a person selling derivatives of worthless mortgages.   Click here if you want to read more about this important case.

Here are some FAQs about this lawsuit.


Why is the Authors Guild still pursuing this case against Google?
Google copied 20 million books to create a massive and uniquely valuable database, all without asking for copyright permission or paying their authors a cent. It mines this vast natural language storehouse for various purposes, not least among them to improve the performance of its search and translation services. The problem is that before Google created Book Search, it digitized and made many digital copies of millions of copyrighted books, which the company never paid for. It never even bought a single book. That, in itself, was an act of theft. If you did it with a single book, you’d be infringing.

I’m a writer and I like Google Book Search. I use it all the time. What’s the problem?
Google Books itself is not the problem. We’re all writers here, and we generally like Google Book Search. Some of us use it for research all the time.

The problem is that Google used authors’ books for profit-making purposes without first getting permission from authors. It just went ahead and copied them many times over and extracted their value, without giving the authors any piece of it. There are lots of other great commercial uses of books; the difference is that most users abide by the law and get permission. If corporations are now free to make unauthorized copies of books for profit as long as there is some public benefit to the copying, then authors’ incomes will suffer even more than they have in recent years.

A truism of the digital age is: whoever controls the data owns the future. Google’s exclusive access to such an enormous slice of the world’s linguistic output cemented its market dominance and continues to this day to further its corporate profits.

Isn’t Google just acting like a giant library?
Not at all. Libraries are public institutions, generally non-profit, dedicated to readers and scholars. Even so, they know they have to pay for their books. Moreover, they are largely not-for-profits intended to serve the public good.

Google is in the business of books for commercial reasons only; it is more like a commercial publisher than a library. Like a commercial publisher, it seeks to profit from its use of books. While Google does this in a different way, by extracting value from data (from both the books’ language as data and data collected from users’ searches), it still should seek permission for these uses because it is extracting value from the authors’ expression.

But libraries lent Google the books in the first place, didn’t they? What’s wrong with that?
Borrowing the books was fine, but copying them without permission or payment was not. If you borrow a book from a library, it’s temporary. You can’t keep a copy for your own personal use. Google made a number of copies of each book—times millions. And they’re way past overdue. Just as a few years ago, some banks proved too big to fail, Google has, so far, apparently been too big to punish. 

Does the Authors Guild want to shut down Google Books?
No. A resounding no. We did not ask the court to shut down Google Books, we simply asked it to require Google to get permission from authors and pay them for the scanning and use of their works.

Doesn’t Google say this is “fair use”? After all, it doesn’t display full copies.
That is Google’s self-serving legal argument, yes, and so far it has persuaded judges who, we believe, are not seeing the big picture. “Fair use” is the exception to copyright that lets people use portions of (and in rare cases whole) copyrighted works for “purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” When deciding whether a particular use is “fair,” courts should take into account at least four separate considerations and weigh them against each other. They are: (1) the “purpose and character” of the use, including whether it is commercial; (2) the nature of work that’s being copied; (3) how much of the work was copied; and (4) whether the copying eats into the potential value of the work that was copied. All these things—and anything else that the court deems relevant—have to be considered independently, and then weighed together to make the fair use determination.

In this case, Google’s use was commercial, the entire works were copied, and the market to bring back out of print books is completely devalued.  

But a lot of fair uses have a commercial element to them. Surely you can’t be saying that Google’s for-profit status prevents it from making fair uses?
We’re not saying that at all. Commerciality is just one of the factors to be considered.

Under the first factor, where the law expressly directs the courts to look at whether the use is commercial, the court focused almost exclusively on what it viewed as the transformative nature of Google Books. The Second Circuit disregarded the commerciality because of the perceived public benefit of Google Books. First, it looked at the public-facing use (the Google Books search engine) not any of Google’s internal uses. Then, looking at the “purpose and character” of Google Books, it decided the use “transformed” the books because the use was different than the use the books were written for. (We don’t agree that this kind of transformation should favor fair use.) Following that logic, it found that Google Books delivers a public benefit (which we don’t deny), and then weighed the whole factor in Google’s favor—regardless of the fact that Google Books was also blatantly commercial. (Even if we agreed the use were transformative, we think the factor should have balanced out as neutral at the very least.)

Then, the court went on to let this first-factor finding color its discussion of each of the other factors—essentially turning a multi-factor test into a one-factor test. The court did not consider each factor independently, nor did it balance them against each other in light of the purposes of copyright, as required by the law.

The multi-factor fair use test has evolved over more than a century and has survived the test of time—for good reason. It does an efficient job of identifying uses that are fair to make without permission. For instance, quoting from a book, criticizing it, or creating a parody of it are all traditional fair uses. But by straying so far from the statute, the Second Circuit reached a decision that cannot be considered fair, especially if you consider the precedent it will set.

If Google isn’t charging people to search for snippets in Google Books, or putting ads on the page, how can it be considered commercial?
Google didn’t spend millions on scanning these books as a charity project. Again, it did it to have access to all the language in those books, which it used to improve its search engine, allowing it to corner the Internet search market and drive more users to its site, which is based on a model in which visitors equal revenue.

Search engines do not make money by charging people for use; they make money by bringing traffic to their sites, collecting data from the users, and selling advertising. Google makes money in all of these ways from Google Books. The fact it has not to date posted advertising on the results pages from searches inside the books is irrelevant.

Moreover, since the Second Circuit decision, Google has integrated its book-buying service (formerly accessed as part of Google Play) with Google Books. Google Books is now a transparently commercial service, as we have always predicted would eventually be the case. 

Why is the Authors Guild taking this to the Supreme Court after it failed to convince so many lower courts?
See above.

We believe that the Second Circuit court took a myopic view of fair use law in its ruling and that the Supreme Court needs to step in and correct this. In the final analysis, the appellate court’s reasoning turns on its head the Constitutional purpose of copyright law. The Founders recognized that, for the benefit of the public, we need authors who can earn a living, independent of government, academic or other patronage. That’s the purpose of copyright: to benefit the public by enabling authors to be compensated for their work. But the Second Circuit, blinded by the public-benefit argument of Google Books supporters, overlooked the fact that it completely cuts authors out of the equation.

Moreover, if this case isn’t overturned, this case will become a rule of law; it doesn’t just apply to Google Books, in other words. The decision will be read by other entities as giving them free reign to digitize books (at least books where the author owns the rights) and create searchable excerpt-viewing services for those books. Other entities might decide to show more of the books than Google currently does, and they probably won’t have the security protections that Google does. As a result, many authors’ books could become widely digitized and available for free on the Internet.

Still, if Google Book Search points potential book buyers to your book, shouldn’t you be thanking them?
Why should Google have the right to decide how to market books for authors? Authors may have many other more profitable ways to make money from their out-of-print and other books, and they should have the right to make those decisions. Let’s say you put your house on the market and your neighbour decides it would be great to have a party there while you are away, without first asking you. He justifies it by telling you he invited a lot of people and so will help market your house. Not too many people would be thrilled with that, even if it did in fact end up leading to a sale. What Google did is very similar.

Google’s seizure of our work (and the courts’ blessing of it) represents a denial to authors of emerging and potential markets for our work. It revokes the promise of the digital age. If Google is allowed to swipe our entire work and profit from it, then so can others, in ways we cannot foresee now. That’s a problem because authors may want to write and create in ways we cannot foresee now, as we find new ways to transform—and profit from—our work.

But we don’t need to look to the future to see the harm being done to authors. Even today writers are seeking to bring their out of print works back to market as print-on-demand editions, or e-books—but Google has made a significant amount of many of these titles readily available on the Internet, and for free. The amount Google displays is already enough to satisfy the demands of many readers and researchers, particularly when it comes to non-fiction books. And as libraries start to follow suit, there will be more and more text available from each book.

Wide availability of free books—isn’t that a good thing?
In the short run, for researchers—maybe. But think about what happens next: people won’t buy nearly as many books. That means all but the highest-selling authors won’t be able to make a living from writing books: many authors will have to take on other work to make ends meet. The result, we hate to say, is that fewer quality books will be written—and that’s a loss to us all.

Aren’t most of the books at issue in the case old, and the authors long dead?
Many of them are older works, but in publishing, “older” can mean just a few years off the press. When the books are old enough to be in the public domain, there’s no problem with Google making copies. The problem arises with the millions of books that are still in copyright. The current case involves books found in academic libraries where the copyright is owned by authors. The vast majority of these books are out-of-print, meaning the author generally had the right to reclaim the copyright. And as we mentioned above, authors are increasingly looking to republish and retool their out-of-print books and bring them back as e-books or print-on-demand. Google Books interferes with that market, plain and simple.

Why should readers care?
Readers should care because the Second Circuit decision waters down copyright protection, and if it stands, readers could face a culture in which authors won’t be motivated to create serious work, because it is simply too hard to sustain a writing career financially in a climate where anyone can use books without paying for them. Most serious writing, outside of academia, is done by authors who write as a profession—because, like any art, great writing requires a lot of time, learning, and practice. And readers should care because written works, as we all know, contribute immeasurably to the vitality of our culture. 

How complicated can it be for Google to ask an author permission to use her work?
Exactly our point: the rights are eminently clearable. The court refused to acknowledge this point or take it into consideration. For example, our sister organization, the Authors Registry, as well as the Copyright Clearance Center, find authors for royalties from overseas uses with little difficulty or expense. And there are innumerable collective rights organizations around the world who do this all of the time—without much difficulty, and with much less money than Google.


The Authors Guild on the Option Clause

September 23, 2015

Excellent statement from The Author’s Guild analyzing the odious “option clause” in the book contract. Most book contracts are “asymmetrical” in favor of the publisher. I.e. an agreement whereby the publisher gets the right to exploit the work of the author for the term of the copyright, life plus 70 years. In exchange they give the author a very small advance (usually)  against rather small royalties. One of the most asymmetrical conditions is the option clause, which requires the author to submit the next book exclusively to the contracted publisher for a given period of time, but doesn’t require any additional responsibility on the publisher to accept it. Sometimes a very limited option clause is ok. But there are some truly horrible ones out there.  Here is the complete text.

A few authors are lucky enough to sign multi-book deals worth six or seven figures. But many more writers, without really thinking about it, tie themselves to unprofitable multi-book deals in the form of one-sided options or “next book” clauses—and they do it for free.

Option clauses in publishing agreements vary, but generally they give the publisher first dibs on the author’s next book. Some options are relatively benign, granting the publisher rights of first look or first negotiation (i.e., the right to see the next book first and negotiate for a limited period of time after reviewing it). Others are never fair, in our view, such as clauses that grant the publisher a right of last refusal (i.e., even if the publisher turns it down at first, it can come back and match any other publisher’s offer) or the ability to wait until after the first book is published, or the second book completed, to make up its mind. Clauses that do so unfairly impede an author’s ability to write and publish.

We get that publishers want their investments in authors to pay off. When a book does well, it may be a credit to the publisher’s marketing efforts, as well as the author’s. In cases where the publisher actively builds the author’s brand, it may be fair to give it the right to further recoup its investment on the next book. But the terms have to reasonable. We have seen too many option clauses that overreach, binding the hands of an unwitting author for longer than she can afford when it comes time to sell the next book.

Option clauses can wreak havoc on authors’ careers. First, and most obviously, they prevent an author from selling her book on the open market and getting the best deal possible. In cases where the first book sold particularly well, unless and until the publisher passes on the next book, an option certainly precludes an auction from developing. And what if the publisher failed to market the first book effectively, or the author was dissatisfied with the edit? The author is left without recourse.

An option can also hold up the author’s ability to get a new advance—a necessity for full-time authors. Particularly egregious clauses require the author to submit a completed manuscript (as opposed to a proposal) of the next book for the publisher’s consideration. To make things worse, they give the publisher way too long to decide whether to publish the manuscript. The author is not permitted to submit a proposal to other publishers until after delivering an entire new book to the original publisher, which is given ample time to review it and, of course, to reject it. This means that the author is writing the entire book without an advance—defeating the very purpose of an advance, which is to provide an author with money to write the book in the first place.

Even worse are options that give the publisher the right to the author’s next book-length work “on the same terms” as the first. That is, if the publisher elects to exercise the option, the author must sign a contract with the publisher with the same provisions and payment structure as the current contract. This completely eliminates the author’s right to negotiate before the next book’s subject matter, length, and market potential are known. No writer should ever agree to such terms.

For absolute intolerability, option clauses including “last refusal” rights take the cake. These, as discussed above, actually allow a publisher to match a second publisher’s offer, even if the publisher who holds the option declines the author’s work initially. We don’t think a publisher should receive even one bite of this apple. But several? That’s crazy. Once a publisher passes on a book, no author should be obligated to disclose any offers received from others to the original publisher.

One Authors Guild member whose option required submission of an entire manuscript spent ten years without any financial compensation while working on a research-intensive non-fiction manuscript (an early advance for the “next book” is almost never part of the deal). His contract prohibited him from approaching any other publisher until the entire manuscript was done—a decade later. It’s preposterous to ask authors to bear that kind of risk.

Fiction writers aren’t immune. A few years ago, a major publisher used a next-book option (together with a non-compete clause, like the ones we’ve called out here) as an excuse to pull the plug on a novel already scheduled for publication. With her agent’s knowledge and blessing, the author decided to self-publish a previously-written but unpublished short story collection in order to make ends meet before the next installment of the advance for the novel was due. When her publisher—which had already rejected the story collection—found out, the author received a termination letter demanding immediate repayment of the advance, claiming that “by ignoring these essential terms of the Agreement and not informing your editor of your intentions, you have not only breached the Agreement, but also demonstrated your unwillingness to work in good faith with us toward the successful publication of the Work.” The novel clearly didn’t compete with the self-published short story e-book. And earlier, when the author presented the publisher with an outline for her next novel, the publisher had insisted on waiting until after the current novel’s release to see how it was received and whether it was worth picking up the next one.

Or consider the romance novelist who took a break from fiction to write a non-fiction book. Her non-fiction contract required her to submit her next book—a romance novel—to that same publisher, despite the fact that the non-fiction publisher had absolutely no experience with romance novels. The upshot was that the author was required to delay submission of the novel to publishers who would actually know how to handle it.

Fair “next book” clauses do exist and may be appropriate where the publisher invests in marketing, but they must be strictly limited. The clause should grant only a right to negotiate with the author for a next book of similar subject matter for a limited period of time. If the author and publisher can’t reach an agreement in that time frame, it is crucial that the author be free to quickly seek another publisher. Additionally, a fair option agreement generally will:

  • require that the publisher base its decision on a proposal or sample chapters of the next book (not on a completed manuscript);
  • require the publisher to make a decision within a certain number of days (e.g., 30) of receiving the author’s proposal or sample chapter(s);
  • allow the author to go elsewhere if no agreement is made within a limited number of days (e.g., 15) of the publisher’s offer;
  • allow the author to submit a proposal or sample from the next book for the publisher’s review when it is ready (the author should never be forced to wait until some period after publication of the first book, which may be way too far out for an author living on book writing alone); and
  • provide for new terms to be negotiated for the next book (the second deal should never be based on the terms in the contract for the first book).

If the publisher wants an option in any other circumstances, the publisher should pay an upfront option fee for it. We recognize this is not an industry practice—not yet, at any rate. But it should become one. A publisher should never have the right to prevent or delay an author from selling her next book unless it pays an additional amount to hold up that work for some period of time, as a film studio would when buying film option rights on a book.

Bottom line: option clauses are almost always in the sole interest of the publisher and not the author. In some cases, the option clause can hold the author’s writing career hostage to the publisher’s schedule for years. This amounts to an unacceptable restriction on an author’s freedom to write. If an author is agreeable to providing the publisher an option, it should be subject to the limits described above.

The Authors Guild on E-book Royalties

July 9, 2015

On June 17, we posted a statement by The Authors Guild about their new Fair Contract Initiative, in which they would be clarifying the issues in the typical book contract that are unfair to authors. Today The Authors Guild issued  their first analysis having to do with e-book royalties, which are substantially lower than the royalties on hardbacks, even though the costs of production and distribution of e-books is substantially lower. It’s worth reading. Here is the text in its entirety.

We announced our Fair Contract Initiative earlier this summer. Now our first detailed analysis tackles today’s inadequate e-book royalties. At the heart of our concern with the unfair industry-standard e-book royalty rate is its failure to treat authors as full partners in the publishing enterprise. This will be a resounding theme in our initiative; it’s what’s wrong with many of the one-sided “standard” clauses we’ll be examining in future installments.

Traditionally, the author-publisher partnership was an equal one. Authors earned around 50% of their books’ profits. That equal split is reflected in the traditional hardcover royalty of 15% of list (cover price, that is, not the much lower wholesale price), and in the 50-50 split of publishers’ earnings from selling paperback, book club, or reprint rights. Authors generally received an even larger share than the publisher for non-print rights (such as stage and screen rights) and foreign rights.

But today’s standard contracts give authors just 25% of the publisher’s “net receipts” (more or less what the publisher collects from a book sale) for e-book royalties. That doesn’t look like a partnership to us.

We maintain that a 50-50 split in e-book profits is fair because the traditional author-publisher relationship is essentially a joint venture. The author writes the book, and by any fair measure the author’s efforts represent most of the labor invested and most of the resulting value. The publisher, like a venture capitalist, invests in the author’s work by paying an advance so the author can make ends meet while the book gets finished. Generally, the publisher also provides editing, marketing, packaging, and distribution services. In return for fronting the financial risk and providing these services, the publisher gets to share in the book’s profits. Not a bad deal. This worked well enough throughout much of the twentieth century: publishers prospered and authors had a decent shot at earning a living.

How the e-book rate evolved

From the mid-1990s, when e-book provisions regularly began appearing in contracts, until around 2004, e-royalties varied wildly. Many of the e-rates at major publishing houses were shockingly low—less than 10% of net receipts—and some were at 50%. Some standard contracts left them open to negotiation. As the years passed, and especially between 2000 and 2004, many publishers paid authors 50% of their net receipts from e-book sales, in keeping with the idea that authors and publishers were equal partners in the book business.

In 2004, we saw a hint of things to come. Random House, which had previously paid 50% of its revenues for e-book sales, anticipated the coming boom in e-book sales and cut its e-rates significantly. Other publishers followed, and gradually e-royalties began to coalesce around 25%. By 2010 it was clear that publishers had successfully tipped the scales on the longstanding partnership between author and publisher to achieve a 75-25 balance in their favor.

The lowball e-royalty was inequitable, but initially it didn’t have much effect on authors’ bottom lines. As late as 2009, e-books accounted for a paltry 3–5% of book sales. Authors and agents ought to have pushed back, but with e-book sales so low it didn’t make much sense to risk the chance of any individual book deal falling apart over e-royalties. We called the 25% rate a “low-water mark.” We said, “Once the digital market gets large enough, authors with strong sales records won’t put up with this: they’ll go where they’ll once again be paid as full partners in the exploitation of their creative work.”

E-books now represent 25–30% of all adult trade book sales, but for the vast majority of authors the rate remains unchanged. If anything, publishers have dug in their heels. Why? There’s a contractual roadblock, for one: major book publishers have agreed to include “most favored nation” clauses in thousands of existing contracts. These clauses require automatic adjustment or renegotiation of e-book royalties if the publisher changes its standard royalty rate, giving publishers a strong incentive to maintain the status quo. And the increasing consolidation of the book industry has drastically reduced competition among publishers, allowing them more than ever to hand authors “take it or leave it” deals in the expectation that the author won’t find a better offer.

The elephant in the room

And then there’s the elephant in the room: Amazon, which has used its e-book dominance to demand steep discounts from publishers and drive down the price of frontlist e-books, even selling them at a loss. As a result, there’s simply not as much e-book revenue to split as there was in 2011when we reported on the e-book royalty math. At that time, publishers made a killing on frontlist e-book sales as compared to frontlist hardcover sales—at the author’s expense—because, as compared to today, the price of e-books was relatively high.

When we analyzed e-royalties for three books in the 2011 post, “E-Book Royalty Math: The House Always Wins,” we found that every time an e-book was sold in place of a hardcover, the author’s take decreased substantially, while the publisher’s take increased.

Since 2011, we have found that publishers’ e-gains have diminished. But the author’s share has fallen even farther. Amazon has squeezed the publishers, to be sure. The publishers have helped recoup their losses by passing them on to their authors.

These were our calculations for several books in 2011. The trend was obvious. Compared with hardcovers, each e-book sold brought big gains to the publisher and sizable losses to the author when the author’s royalties are compared to the publisher’s gross profit (income per copy minus expenses per copy), calculated using industry-standard contract terms:

Author’s Royalty vs. Publisher’s Profit, 2011

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.75 hardcover; $2.28 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss = -39%

Publisher’s Margin: $4.75 hardcover; $6.32 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain = +33%

Hell’s Corner, by David Baldacci

Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.20 hardcover; $2.63 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss = -37%

Publisher’s Margin: $5.80 hardcover; $7.37 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain = +27%

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.05 hardcover; $3.38 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss = -17%

Publisher’s Margin: $5.45 hardcover; $9.62 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain = +77%

What’s happening now? We ran the numbers again using the following recent bestsellers. Because of lower e-book prices, the publishers don’t do as well as they used to, though they still come out ahead when consumers choose e-books over hardcovers. But authors fare worse than ever:

Author’s Royalty vs. Publisher’s Profit, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doer

Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.04 hardcover; $2.09 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss= -48%

Publisher’s Margin: $5.44 hardcover; $5.80 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain: +7%

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande

Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.90 hardcover; $1.92 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss= -51%

Publisher’s Margin: $5.10 hardcover; $5.27 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain: +3.5%

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.89; $1.92 e-book.

Author’s E-Loss: -51%

Publisher’s Margin: $5.09 hardcover; $5.27 e-book.

Publisher’s E-Gain: +3.5%[1]

Exceptions to the rule

It’s time for a change. If the publishers won’t correct this imbalance on their own, it will take a critical mass of authors and agents willing to fight for a fair 50% e-book royalty. We hope that established authors and, particularly, bestselling authors will start to push back and stand up to publishers on the royalty rate—on behalf of all authors, as well as themselves.

There have been cracks in some publishers’ façades. Some bestselling authors have managed to obtain a 50% e-book split, though they’re asked to sign non-disclosure agreements to keep these terms secret. We’ve also heard of authors with strong sales histories negotiating 50-50 royalty splits in exchange for foregoing an advance or getting a lower advance; or where the 50% rate kicks in only after a certain threshold level of sales. For instance, a major romance publishing house has offered 50% royalties, but only after the first 10,000 electronic copies—a high bar to clear in the current digital climate. But overall, publishers’ apparent inflexibility on their standard e-book royalty demonstrates their unwillingness to change it.

We know and respect the fact that publishers—especially in this era of media consolidation—need to meet their bottom lines. But if professional authors are going to continue to produce the sort of work publishing houses are willing to stake their reputations on, those authors need a fair share of the profits from their art and labor. In a time when electronic books provide an increasing share of revenues at significantly lower production and distribution costs, publishers’ e-book royalty practices need to change.

[1] In calculating these numbers and percentages for hardcover editions, we made the following assumptions: (1) the publisher sells at an average 50% discount to the wholesaler or retailer, (2) the royalty rate is 15% of list price (as it is for most hardcover books, after 10,000 units are sold), (3) the average marginal cost to manufacture the book and get it to the store is $3, and (4) the return rate is 25% (a handy number—if one of four books produced is returned, then the $3 marginal cost of producing the book is spread over three other books, giving us a return cost of $1 per book). We also rounded up retail list price a few pennies to give us easy figures to work with.

Likewise, in calculating these numbers and percentages for the 2015 set of e-books, we are assuming that under the agency model—which is reportedly the new standard in the Big Five’s agreements with Amazon—the online bookseller pays 70% of the retail list price of the e-book to the publisher. The bookseller, acting as the publisher’s agent, sells the e-book at the price established by the publisher. The unit costs to the publisher are simply the author’s royalty and the encryption and transmission fees, for which we deduct a generous 50 cents per unit.   


The Author’s Guild on the Book Contract

June 17, 2015

Most of us who have ever negotiated a book contract will tell you that these agreements are unfair to authors. Contracts are classic asymmetrical agreements whereby the publisher gets the rights to exploit your writing in all possible manner and in all possible venues for the term of the copyright (life plus 70 years). They have the right to keep you from publishing any other book that they deem will compete against the contracted work. They will attempt to restrain you from showing your next work to another publisher until they have had an exclusive opportunity to look at it and make an offer. They will claim the right to reject the book for any reason and require you to return the advance paid. In exchange, they will give you a teeny bit of money. No wonder authors are claiming that they are better off self publishing.

To combat this, The Authors Guild, my favorite author organization, has developed a new program to shine a light on the unfair elements of the book contract. Today they published an outline of the Fair Contract Initiative and describe the areas that they will be analyzing going forward. It’s worth a read.


“On May 28 we announced the Authors Guild Fair Contract Initiative. Its goal is to shine a bright light on the one-sided contract terms that publishers typically offer authors and to spur publishers to offer more equitable deals. This is not an abstract issue: today’s contracts directly affect authors’ livelihoods and ability to control their works. As standard terms have become less favorable to authors in recent years, their ability to make a living has become more precarious.

Authors are among our more vulnerable classes of workers. Book authors receive no benefits, no retirement income or pension, and there are no unions to protect them. They live or die by copyright—their ability to license rights to publishers in exchange for advances and royalties. While copyright is meant to give authors control of how and on what terms others can use their works, publishing agreements tend to be negotiable only around the edges, and even then only by well-represented authors.

“Standard” contracts—the boilerplate offered to un-agented (or under-agented) authors—are even worse than those that most authors with agents or lawyers sign. That’s because agented agreements traditionally start off with the many changes that the agent or lawyer has previously negotiated with a particular publisher. One agented contract we’ve seen includes at least 96 changes from the original “standard” language, plus seven additional clauses and two additional riders. Every one of those changes is a point that the agent has negotiated in the author’s favor.

Why do publishers insist on offering their newest partners more than a hundred conditions so dubious that they’ll quickly back down on them if asked? It largely boils down to unequal bargaining power and historic lethargy. Anxious to get their works published, authors may wrongly believe that the contract their editors assure them is “standard” is the only deal available, take it or leave it. And much of that “standard” language has been around for years thanks to institutional inertia; as long as somebody signs an unfair clause that favors the publisher, the firm has no interest in modifying it. But even contracts negotiated by agents and lawyers often include longstanding “gotchas” that live on only because “it’s always been that way.”

It’s time for that to change. We’ll be highlighting particular clauses in the weeks to come. For now, here are just some of the issues we’ll be looking into:

Fair Book Contracts: What Authors Need

Half of net proceeds is the fair royalty rate for e-books
Royalties on e-books should be 50% of net proceeds. Traditional royalty rates reflected the concept that publishing is a joint venture between author and publisher. But despite the lower production and distribution costs associated with e-books, publishers typically offer only 25% of net. That’s half as much as it should be.

A publishing contract should not be forever
We think contracts should expire after a fixed amount of time. Publishers may pretend to consider this an unreasonable request—yet it’s precisely what they demand when they license paperback rights to others. Today’s contracts are generally for the life of copyright (meaning they essentially last at least 35 years, at which point copyright law gives the author the right to terminate the agreement). That’s too long.

Thanks to clever contractual language, it has become increasingly difficult for authors to get their rights back if the book goes out of print. “Out-of-print” clauses may be easily manipulated in this day of e-books and print-on-demand technology. At the same time, it’s more important than ever for authors to reacquire their rights so they can make e-book and print-on-demand titles available from their backlist. Unfortunately, we have heard too many stories of publishers refusing to revert rights or to make their authors’ books meaningfully available. Publishers should not be allowed to hold a book hostage; their contracts should provide clear language stating that if a specific royalty minimum is not paid within a certain period of time, then the book is defined as “out-of-print.”

A manuscript’s acceptability should not be a matter of whim
In standard contracts, whether a manuscript is acceptable or satisfactory is often in the “publisher’s sole judgment”; that means a new editor or management can reject a book on a whim and refuse to let the author publish it elsewhere until the entire advance is refunded. This can happen after an author has invested several years of work in the book, foregoing other opportunities in the meantime. Under some contracts, the publisher can even have the book rewritten at the author’s expense, decide whether or not to credit the new author, and maintain its own copyright to the additions and revisions. This is patently unfair. A publishing agreement based on a proposal is not an option, it is a contract to publish and pay, assuming the author delivers.

Advances must remain advances
Once upon a time, advances were typically split into two payments: one on signing of the contract, and one on acceptance of the manuscript. In recent years, we’ve seen three-part payment schedules: one-third on signing, on acceptance, and on publication. Now we’re seeing four-part payments: signing, acceptance, publication, and paperback publication. Slower payments shift risk from publisher to author. They also defeat the whole purpose of advances: to enable authors to devote themselves to completing their books without having to take on other work to make ends meet.

Publishers should share legal risk
No author can afford to put his or her entire net worth on the line, but that’s what many authors do when they sign publishing contracts. Authors are asked to assume the risk of suits for infringement or libel. This is true even where the publisher has lawyers who have vetted the book. Investigative journalists are most at risk. Forcing authors to assume the risk of a lawsuit can amount to a restraint on their speech. Publishers’ liability insurance should also cover authors. The author’s share of the risk, if any, should never exceed the total amount of the author’s advance.

Non-compete clauses must let the authors write
Authors must be free to write. The non-compete clause—an attempt to restrict the author from publishing work elsewhere that might cut into the current title’s sales—is no longer reasonable in the era of instant publishing. The clause should be simple: only the publisher can publish the current title, long excerpts from it, or a substantially similar work. Anything more is an unfair restriction on the author’s livelihood.

Options must be fair and paid for
Anything that keeps writers from publishing is simply unacceptable. That means option clauses should disappear. If a publisher wants an option on a future book, it should offer a separate payment for it and a quick decision on whether to offer a contract on it. Today’s standard option clauses often let the publisher delay the option decision until the current work is published. That can keep the author in limbo for years; it’s deplorable.

The author must have final say
When it comes to the text of the book, the author should have the final cut—that is, no changes in the text should be made without the author’s approval. The publisher should submit jacket flap and advertising copy to the author for approval. And the author should have the chance to approve any biographical material used in the book and/or publicity produced by or for the publisher.

Payments must move into the 21st century
Publishers’ methods of accounting have inevitably favored the publisher. Royalty statements and payments to authors typically appear only twice a year on income the publisher received between three and ten months previously. And the publisher can delay payment still further by invoking what is inevitably called a “reasonable reserve for returns”—that is, an estimate of how many books it will get back—without ever defining what “reasonable” means. The result is that it can be up to two years before an author is paid royalties for a sale. We think it’s time for royalties to be paid at least every three months with a limited delay and that every contract should clearly define “reasonable.”

“Special” book sales must not be at the author’s expense
Book contracts include a variety of royalty rates for different types of sales. Contracts routinely allow high-discount deals (such as selling a bulk load of books to a big-box store or a book club) to reduce the basis of the author’s royalty from the list price of the book to the much smaller net amount the publisher receives. Crossing the discount threshold from “normal” to “high” can magically reduce the author’s cut by more than fifty percent, giving the publisher a strong incentive to take that step. Why should an author accept this?

The above is just a taste of what we’ll address in the coming months. In addition to the standard book contract, we’ll also be identifying unreasonable provisions in self-publishing and freelance journalism agreements.

We’d like to hear from you. If a publisher has handed you especially egregious contract terms, please let us know. You can contact us here. But if your contract includes a non-disclosure clause, please don’t violate it. By the way, we don’t like those clauses, either.

Ultimately, we hope this initiative will create a climate of “just say no” to egregious contractual terms. We’d like you, the authors, to understand what you’re giving away when you sign your contracts, what you’re getting in return, and to make self-interested judgments about what’s fair. Of course, you just want to sign that agreement and get on with writing, but in the long run it’s in your interest to take a deep breath and to stick up for your rights, and for those of your fellow authors.”

The Amazon – Hachette Dispute: What’s at Stake for Authors?

May 23, 2014

bezos_bookstore-620x412The book industry has been abuzz with the latest news of Amazon bullying book publishers. According to an article in The New York Times on May 8, Amazon has been involved in tough negotiations with Hachette Book Group, the fifth largest publisher in the United States. In order to pressure them for better deals, Amazon has engaged in a number of practices to make it harder  for Hachette to sell books through Amazon. This includes “slow walking” Hachette titles — delaying reorders of out of stock books in order to  slow down delivery. Normally Amazon ships books within 24 hours. On some Hachette titles, Amazon is saying that delivery will take as long as 5 weeks. Examples include new and backlist titles and even some best sellers.

Today we learn Amazon has removed the pre-order function for many not yet published Hachette titles. Also typically Amazon discounts books 20-40%. Since the dispute began, there are many Hachette titles being sold at list price.

In the past Amazon has taken the “buy” button off titles — making them effectively unavailable  in order to pressure publishers for better terms. They seem to be doing the same thing but using subtler methods in this instance.

No doubt Amazon is trying to induce authors to pressure publishers into capitulating to Amazon demands. If an author’s book is not available on Amazon for 5 weeks, it could be quite distressing, particularly if it is a new title with sales being driven by publicity. But in this instance the industry –  including the authors –  seems to be outraged by Amazon and inclined to support Hachette hanging tough.

There is another possible threat to author royalties in all this. Every publishing contract has a so-called  “deep discounting” provision. Typically the contract stipulates that if a publisher sells a book to a retailer at very high discount, then the royalty to the author will be cut, in some cases as much as 50%. These kinds of transactions have traditionally been limited to wholesalers and non-returnable bulk sales to big box stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and Costco. But if Amazon is successful in extracting ruinous terms from publishers, we can expect more sales to fall under these deep discounting provisions and author royalties to be reduced accordingly.

Today the Authors Guild, the largest organization representing the interests of book authors, came out with a statement unequivocally attacking Amazon’s strong arming Hachette. They characterize Amazon’s tactics as “blackmail”.


Interview With Authors Guild General Counsel, Jan Constantine

April 30, 2014

constantineToday we are going to speak to Jan Constantine, general counsel for the Authors Guild.

The Authors Guild is the largest and oldest organization representing authors in America. I love the Authors Guild, and as an agent, I am proud to be a member.  It is an amazingly robust, sometimes even militant, advocacy organization that fights for the rights of all writers. They engage in numerous activities including lobbying Congress on copyright and book piracy issues and advising writers on how not to get taken advantage of by publishers. In this brave new world of the Internet, where tech gurus tell us that “information wants to be free,” The Authors Guild fights for the quaint notion that the work of the writer, like all work, has dignity and deserves to be compensated. Everyone reading this blog should join. It’s only $90 a year.  Check out their eligibility requirements.

Andy: Jan, welcome to “Ask the Agent.”  I think the $90 membership fee for the Authors Guild is a pretty good investment for any writer. Can you tell me what that buys you?

Jan: Absolutely, Andy, and thank you for having me.  One of the things our members find most useful is our Model Book Contract.  It’s a manual that goes through a publishing contract clause-by-clause.  For every provision, we provide members with what we think of as a “model” clause, and then next to the model clause we provide a running commentary educating authors about what exactly is at stake in each part of the publishing contract.  It’s a very empowering tool that gives authors the knowledge and insight to successfully negotiate with publishers.

Andy: As an agent, I have to negotiate book contracts all the time, and I find the Model Contract an indispensible reference. Not to put too fine a point, a book contract is an asymmetrical agreement where the publisher agrees to give the author a pathetically small amount of money in exchange for the author’s intellectual indentured servitude for the term of the copyright. The Model Contract is a great tool for helping the author avoid the pitfalls. Of course the Model Contract and  representation by a good agent is even better. Can you just tell us a few of the issues in a book contract  that authors should be watching out for?

Jan: Our Model Contract advises authors to be wary of a number of one-sided provisions that are often present in publisher’s boilerplate forms.  One to look out for is a so-called “joint accounting” clause, which provides that any money the author might owe the publisher under contracts for other books can be deducted from payments due to the author under the current book contract.  Our position is that each publishing contract and book should be treated as a separate venture.

Non-competition clauses, if broadly-worded, can also be troublesome. Most book contracts have non-competition language that restrains the author from publishing a “competing” work.   We counsel authors to define a “competing work” as narrowly as possible, especially if they think they might write subsequent works on the same or a similar subject.

Another potential hazard is  the “satisfactory manuscript” clause, also present in most publishing contracts. It can be unfair to authors if it allows the publisher to reject the manuscript for any reason at all.  You don’t want a publisher to be able to reject your manuscript just because of a change in market conditions or a perceived shift in readers’ tastes.  You want to insert some sort of objective standard here, such as a clause stating that your manuscript must be “professionally competent and fit for publication.”

Those are a few issues that come to mind.  The bottom line is that a publishing contract is a joint venture between author and publisher.  A well-negotiated contract should reflect their mutual investment in each other.

Andy: So, Jan, what else does the Authors Guild do?

Jan: Of course there’s our lobbying, which you mentioned in your introduction, and our lawsuits.  Members also receive our quarterly Bulletin, which covers the publishing industry from the author’s perspective, and they have access to legal services, such as contract reviews and intervention in publishing disputes, at no cost.  Then there’s the Author’s Registry, a not-for profit that secures foreign royalties for U.S. authors.  All members are automatically enrolled.  Since 1996 the Registry has distributed more than $22 million to authors.  We have a program called which lets authors sell their out-of-print books as print-on-demand paperbacks.  We offer web services that allow authors to build full-featured websites.  We host in-person and phone-in seminars to educate authors on all aspects of their profession.   That’s a long list.  We like to think that membership is a great value.

Andy: And you get all that for $90 a year!  Let’s talk about “information wants to be free.”  This cliché seems to express a kind of ethos going around the Internet. It’s exemplified by “Wikipedia.”  It’s a world where all people are experts and where people’s intellectual work is accordingly devalued and not worthy of compensation.   Do you care to comment on this?

Jan: Well, I think Wikipedia may not be the real enemy here.  That’s a situation where people are donating their expertise with no expectation of financial compensation.  We’re more concerned with piracy—theft—making copyrighted works available for free, in violation of the author’s right to distribute her work and her right to make a living from her work.  And yes, this type of piracy does seem to be encouraged by those who rally behind that slogan, “information wants to be free.”  But you know what?  That’s only half of it.  They get that slogan from Stewart Brand.  But what Brand was talking about was this tension that won’t go away.  Information wants to be free, he said, because it’s so cheap to distribute now.  But on the other hand, he said, information wants to be expensive.  Why?  Because it’s so valuable to the recipient.  And this is a tension that is embodied in our nation’s copyright laws in a very productive way.  The author has exclusive rights, sure, but there’s also fair use, and exceptions for schools and libraries, and the fact that copyright doesn’t last forever.  It’s a tension that’s expressed in the Copyright Clause in the Constitution, and it’s a tension acknowledged by Congress every time it brings different stakeholders to the table to discuss what needs to be changed in our copyright law.

Andy:So what kinds of things is the Authors Guild doing to combat piracy?

Jan: Well, I just mentioned Congress.  The Authors Guild has been working with legislators and private companies for years to develop a more comprehensive solution to online piracy.  Two bills proposed in 2012—SOPA and PIPA—would have done something to diminish Internet piracy, and we supported them.  Search engines and Internet service providers are profiting daily from linking to and hosting pirate sites, and the  Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the 1998 law that addresses this problem, is doing little to stop them; the Copyright Alert System is doing little to stop them; and they certainly aren’t policing themselves.  For example, an international recording industry group recently announced it sent its 100 millionth piracy notice to Google—with no noticeable demotion of pirate sites in search results.

Andy: I hear a lot of people who seem to think book piracy is no big deal. I think it’s stealing and no different from shoplifting books from a bookstore. What do you think? (That’s a rhetorical question, obviously.)

Jan: We couldn’t agree more.  The only difference is the extent to which this type of theft is accepted, or at least ignored.  And that seems to be at least in part a result of the “information wants to be free” ethos.

Andy:  One of my pet peeves is It seems to me that they have cultivated a notion that books cost too much, that e-books have a kind of inherent value of about $2.99. I don’t think this price recognizes the value added that goes into a professionally written and published book. Can you explain why books, electronic and paper, might merit a higher price?

Jan: The real problem is that Amazon is selling books at an artificially lowprice.  A look back at Amazon’s tactics over the years makes it very clear they’ve always used books as a loss leader.  Amazon has sold print books at a loss for years in order to drive its market share.  It’s doing the same thing with e-books.  It’s an artificial market.  This shields it from competition with any but the biggest competitors and makes it incredibly difficult for brick-and-mortar bookstores to enter the e-book market. And you’re right, the danger is that consumers get the notion that the inherent value of a book is cheaper than it actually is.

Andy: Recently the United States sued Apple and the major publishers for trying to fix prices. The publishers lost. The Authors Guild was supportive of the publishers in this instance. How come? Shouldn’t we be encouraging free market competition?

Jan: Well, our position was that the strategies pursued by Apple and the publishers were increasing competition.  Apple and the publishers were offering a new model for the sale of e-books, where Apple would act as the publisher’s sales agent, with no authority to discount e-book prices.  In the two years after this new “agency model” was introduced, Amazon’s share of the e-book market fell from 90% to 60%.  Barnes & Noble introduced a tablet to compete with Amazon’s Kindle during this time.  Brick-and-mortar stores began partnering with Google to sell e-books to their customers at the same price they were being sold from Amazon.  These look to me like the effects of a free market.

Andy: Jan, thanks. This is just a small sampling of what the Guild is doing. You should check out their website and blog.

More Letters Against the Department of Justice Anti-trust Action

June 26, 2012

Two very thorough, compelling,  and eloquent letters were sent to the Department of Justice today criticizing their lawsuit against Apple Computers and the book publishers. Hundreds of letters have been sent by people and organizations in the book business criticizing the DOJ for attacking the victims  in their misplaced efforts to oppose monopolistic practices in the industry. Letters have been prepared by trade associations, publishers, authors, agents,  and booksellers, all sending the same message: this lawsuit will do nothing but enhance the market power of the only entity that poses a monopolistic threat to the book business, I suppose we owe a debt of gratitude to Amazon for bringing together parties who have historically been wary of one another. Chain and independent bookstores are united on this as are almost all publishers and, with few exceptions, authors and agents.

The Authors Guild, the major organization representing book authors, and Bill Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage (and a leader in the historic efforts by independent booksellers to stop anti-competitive practices) have made some new and telling points. Check out the complete texts of these. Bill Petrocelli’s letter  and The Authors Guild letter.

The Authors Guild reminds us of a practice by Amazon of pulling the “buy” buttons from print on demand books being published by iUniverse publishers and printed by  Lightningsource. Lightening Source was the first major company to offer this new technology for self-published books. When Amazon created its own service, Booksurge, to compete, they played hardball and temporarily refused to sell selected Lighteningsource titles. Here is what Authors Guild described:

“The Guild had launched in the summer of 1999, allowing authors for the first time to republish their out-of-print books without incurring any set-up costs. (The Guild had negotiated an agreement with on-demand publisher iUniverse to prepare the books for on-demand printing.) The service was an immediate hit with members; within two years, more than 1,000 titles were available to readers again, including books by Mary McCarthy, Thornton Wilder, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Victor Navasky….

Sales of all on-demand books grew steadily in the early 2000s. By 2005, sales of on-demand books had reached a new high. Backinprint titles sold 41,000 units that year. Amazon, the storefront for most on-demand sales, took notice. It purchased BookSurge, an on-demand printer, to compete with Lightning Source, the industry-leading on-demand printing service run by Ingram.

Three years later, however, few on-demand publishers had moved their printing to BookSurge. Small wonder, since it charged more for its printing services than Lightning Source and had a reputation of offering lower quality service. So Amazon turned to aggressive tactics to win market share, reportedly removing the buy buttons from all iUniverse titles during the 2008 AWP conference. Author Solutions, which had acquired iUniverse, saw its sales plummet. It quickly agreed to use BookSurge for its Amazon sales, and Amazon restored access to its millions of customers. ”

The Guild also pointed out some troubling practices by Amazon who recently purchased the rights to sell some very important titles and imprints that Amazon would be able to sell exclusively:

” With the launch of the Kindle Fire, Amazon’s drive to acquire exclusive rights to books, by acquiring publishers with substantial backlists and other arrangements, has taken on a new urgency.

In September 2011, Amazon’s acquired the exclusive digital rights to one hundred popular DC Comics graphic novels. If a customer wanted to read any of these on an e-device, it had to be on a Kindle Fire. Barnes & Noble, trying to break into the e-device market with its Nook, retaliated by pulling all print copies of DC Comics titles from its shelves. Books-a-Million, the third largest bookseller, followed suit. “As Amazon seeks over the next few years to expand its tablet line,” predicted the New York Times, “these collisions over content are likely to become routine.”

Amazon is moving quickly. In December, Amazon entered the children’s book market, acquiring more than 450 titles of Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books. In April, Amazon announced it had acquired the exclusive North American rights to publish Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels — in both digital and print formats. Earlier this month, Amazon expanded its holdings of genre fiction, purchasing the publisher Avalon Books and the exclusive rights to its 3,000-title backlist of romance, mystery and Western fiction.

Balkanization of the literary market is something new and deeply troubling. “Bookstores used to pride themselves on never removing any book from their shelves,” reported the Times, “but that tradition—born in battles over censorship—is fading as competitive struggles increase.” Awful as it is for our literary culture, the balkanization of the book market is but a logical extension of Amazon’s no-prisoners approach to competition.”

Bill Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage in Corte Madera, California, put some historical perspective on the actions of the government:

” To put the issue in its starkest form, does a shaky claim of collusion under Section One of the Sherman Act take precedence over a clear violation of Section Two of that same act? I am aware that the DOJ has characterized the actions of the publishers as a per se violation, but the invocation of that label should not be a substitute for clear thinking. The creation of a monopoly in the book business is a far more serious offense than the claim of collusion alleged in this case, because it creates a permanent, anti-competitive situation that is extremely difficult to dislodge.

And this leads to the question of the role of the DOJ. What is the Justice Department doing in this case? Why – of all the potential cases it could be pursuing – did it decide to take this one? Amazon. com – the supposed aggrieved party in this case – is one of the largest, richest companies in America. It is perfectly capable of protecting its own interests and asserting any claims it might have in the courts. So why, then, has the Justice Department decided to align itself with this monopolist?

The actions of the DOJ are especially galling in light of the fact the Justice Department and its sister agency, The Federal Trade Commission, have turned a blind eye to anti-competitive activities in the book business over the last forty years. There has been substantial evidence of anti-competitive uncovered practices uncovered by lawsuits initiated by Northern California Booksellers Association and by the American Booksellers Association. There were two investigations conducted by the staff of the FTC, but in both cases the recommendations of the staff were turned down by the Commission itself. The Justice Department is certainly aware of these investigations, because Christine Varney, the immediate past head of the Anti-Trust division, was a Commissioner on the FTC at the time its investigation was curtailed.

So once again, why now? Why has the Department of Justice decided to ally itself with the interests of a monopolist? By placing the power and majesty of its office on the side of, the Justice Department is undermining that fabric of the book business and signaling to all future monopolists that concentrated, anticompetitive behavior will get a free pass from the government. “

The Authors Guild and the Book Publisher Antitrust Case

June 4, 2012

Today The Authors Guild issued a statement of position on the antitrust case ititiated by the United States against Apple, Penguin, and Macmillan. It is a very thoughtful and elegant analysis of the competitive dynamics book publishing from the point of view of the largest organization representing writers. Here it is:

Agency pricing, in which the e-book vendor acts as the publisher’s “agent,” with no authority to change the retail price of the book, was a reaction to a specific anticompetitive provocation – Amazon had been routinely selling frontlist e-books at below cost. Amazon’s predatory tactic wasn’t scattershot; it was (and remains – Amazon continues to deploy this weapon with the titles of non-agency publishers) highly targeted. When not constrained by agency pricing, Amazon chooses to absorb substantial losses on e-book editions of a specific subset of new hardcover books: those that are most likely to be stocked by traditional bookstores.
The Justice Department’s proposal, which would permit Amazon to resume using the frontlists of three major publishers for anticompetitive purposes, appears to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the market for trade books, particularly the interplay between the online market for print books and the e-book market. Amazon, which has long commanded 75% of the online market for print books, clearly understands that relationship well. The story of the introduction of the Kindle is largely a story of Amazon exploiting its dominance in the online market for print books to gain control of the e-book market.
Frontlist, Backlist, and the Rise of Online Bookselling
To understand the U.S. market for trade books, one needs to understand how online retailing has radically altered the competitive landscape of bookselling.
The literary marketplace has traditionally been divided into two broad submarkets: frontlist (the season’s new books) and backlist (everything else). Retailers faced the most competition in selling frontlist books – new hardcovers and new paperbacks were the most likely titles to appear on the shelves of stores (bookstores, airport newsstands, and big box retailers, among others) across the country. Backlist books were far less likely to be on store shelves, except for the relatively rare “core backlist” titles that had become steady sellers (To Kill a Mockingbird, Green Eggs and Ham, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, for example). “Deep backlist” books, a subcategory of backlist books that were sold almost exclusively through special orders or at used bookstores, were the least commercially available books.
With the rise of online bookselling, these categories still largely existed, but online booksellers, with endlessly long bookshelves made possible by inexpensive warehouse space and on-demand printing technology, came to dominate the market for backlist and especially deep backlist titles. For nearly all backlist books, representing roughly 90% of all in-print titles, the online market had become the market, and Amazon owned the online market. The deeper one traveled down the backlist, the more complete Amazon’s dominance. Amazon had even gained control of the furthest end of the long tail – out-of-print books – by buying up the major competing online used bookselling networks.
Online Print Book Dominance Dictates Amazon’s E-Book Tactics
From Amazon’s perspective, as it prepared to launch the Kindle, the print book market had two components: the part in which it faced significant competition (the market for new books and core backlist titles) and the part in which it didn’t (everything else). Amazon would leverage its online print book dominance to conquer the e-book market, protecting its profits on 90% of titles by focusing its predatory tactics on the other 10%, the books that were most likely to be on store shelves.
Brick-and-mortar bookstores were in the crosshairs, jeopardizing vital participants in the literary ecosystem. Bookstores remain critical showrooms for works by new or lesser-known authors and for entire categories of books, such as children’s picture books. Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more open to trying new genres and new authors when in a bookstore than when shopping online.
It seems to come down to browsing versus searching. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are optimized for browsing; the stores’ “search engines” – their information desks – aren’t what draw in customers. A reader browsing the shelves and tables of a bookstore is often hoping to discover something unexpected. Virtual bookstores, on the other hand, are optimized for search – browsing isn’t the attraction. Readers behave accordingly, tending to use virtual bookstores as search engines to find books they’ve discovered elsewhere.
Publishers were aware of much of this and that the health of brick-and-mortar bookstores relied heavily on frontlist hardcover book sales, but Amazon persuaded them to break with established practice and release books in digital form at the same time they released them as hardcovers. The protection for the hardcover market (and brick-and-mortar bookstores) was implicit: Amazon agreed to pay the same wholesale price for e-books that it did for hardcovers.
Things didn’t work out. As Amazon launched its Kindle in November 2007, publishers learned that it would be selling a long list of frontlist e-books at a loss. As Scott Turow said in his letter to members on March 9th:

It was as if Netflix announced that it would stream new movies the same weekend they opened in theaters. Publishers, though reportedly furious, largely acquiesced. Amazon, after all, already controlled some 75% of the online physical book market.

Amazon quickly captured the e-book market as well, bringing customers into its proprietary device-and-format walled garden (Sony, the prior e-book device leader, uses the open ePub format). Two years after it introduced the Kindle, Amazon continued to take losses on a deep list of e-book titles, undercutting hardcover sales of the most popular frontlist titles at its brick and mortar competitors. Those losses paid huge dividends. By the end of 2009, Amazon held an estimated 90% of the rapidly growing e-book market. Traditional bookstores were shutting down or scaling back. Borders was on its knees. Barnes & Noble had gamely just begun selling its Nook, but it lacked the capital to absorb e-book losses for long.

The publishers had made a huge mistake.
Taking Aim at One Percent
Even as it targeted the 10% of titles sold in bookstores, Amazon would be selective. Amazon could get the most bang for its buck by taking aim at the narrow band of books on which its brick-and-mortar competitors were most dependent – those new titles from larger publishers that bring readers into bookstores. Once in the stores, a reader might choose to purchase other books within the list of 10% of titles in which Amazon faced competition: it was best, from Amazon’s perspective, to keep readers out of bookstores and safely online, on Amazon’s turf.
So Amazon’s predation focused on a slice within a slice of the literary market. Amazon would sell at a substantial loss the electronic versions of select new hardcovers: the new bestsellers, near bestsellers, and might-become bestsellers from commercial publishers. Our best estimate was that Amazon’s predatory tactics focus on less than one percent of in-print titles.
Amazon’s highly selective predation not only conquered the e-book market, it paid immediate dividends in the print book market. Marketing studies confirm what Amazon no doubt guessed: readers who buy Kindles tend to dramatically shift their print book purchases to Amazon.
The strategy was brilliant, a predatory feedback loop in which online print book dominance allowed Amazon to absorb selective losses to gain control of the e-book market, which in turn gave Amazon an ever-larger share of the print book market. It was a tactic Amazon could continue indefinitely, as it offset its losses on the most recognizable new e-books by taking profits on e-books by lesser-known authors, on backlist e-books, and on its growing share of print book sales.
After Two Years of Predation, Agency Pricing Opens the E-Book Market
For more than two years Amazon’s predatory pricing went unchecked. Then, in January 2010, one month after B&N shipped its first Nook, Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s iPad, with its iBookstore and its proven iTunes-and-apps “agency model” for selling digital content. Five of the largest publishers jumped on with Apple’s agency pricing, even though it meant those publishers would make less money on each e-book they sold. Again, from Scott Turow’s March 9th letter:

Publishers had no real choice (except the largest, Random House, which could bide its time – it took the leap with the launch of the iPad 2): it was seize the agency model or watch Amazon’s discounting destroy their physical distribution chain. Bookstores were well along the path to becoming as rare as record stores. That’s why we publicly backed Macmillan when Amazon tried to use its online print book dominance to enforce its preferred e-book sales terms, even though Apple’s agency model also meant lower royalties for authors.

Agency pricing brought real competition, steadily loosening Amazon’s chokehold on the e-book market: its share fell from 90% to roughly 60% in two years.
Agency pricing allowed cash-strapped B&N to make substantial investments in e-readers with the reasonable hope of earning a return on those investments. Customers are benefiting from the surprisingly innovative e-readers those investments have delivered, including a tablet device that beat Amazon to the market by a full twelve months.
Authors in Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program benefited as much as anyone, as Amazon more than doubled its royalty rates to match Apple’s agency model royalties.
Most importantly, agency pricing has prohibited Amazon from using the most popular new books from six large publishers to undermine the economics of bookselling. Agency pricing has given bookstores a fighting chance.
The Proposed Settlement Allows Amazon to Resume Its Predatory Practices
The Justice Department’s proposal undoes all of this. Its settlement with three large publishers would require the publishers to allow Amazon (and other e-book vendors) to sell e-books at below cost, so long as the vendors don’t lose money on the publisher’s entire list of e-books over a 12-month period. Amazon, a far richer and more powerful corporation than it was even two years ago, has every motivation to revert to its prior ways – it will take losses on the books that bring customers into bookstores, and make it back on less popular and backlist books. It will lose money on the one percent, and make it back on the rest.
The Justice Department is sanctioning the destructive, anticompetitive campaign of a corporate giant with billions in cash and boundless ambitions. The situation is bizarre, and without precedent, to our knowledge: the Justice Department is intervening to help entrench a monopolist.

My Letter to the Department of Justice

May 8, 2012

Everyone in book publishing has been talking about the anti-trust litigation and proposed settlements initiated by the United States against Apple and 5 major book publishers. The government’s case alleges that the defendants agreed to fix prices on e-books and  that these agreements  had the effect of raising prices to consumers. Most people in our business believe   that the United States’ position is misdirected, that the lawsuit will enhance the market power of and that this is the real anti-trust threat to the industry. The Authors Guild representing authors, the American Booksellers Association representing independent booksellers and now the Association of Author Representatives representing literary agents are on record as opposing the position of the Department of Justice. I decided to weigh in, myself, with the letter below. The DOJ is required to consider these letters, so any of you who wish to express your opinions should write to  John Read at the address below.

John R. Read
Chief, Litigation III Section
United States Department of Justice
450 5th St NW
Suite 4000
Washington DC 20530

Dear Mr. Read:

I am writing regarding the proposed settlement between the three book publishers ( Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, and Hachette Book Group)  and the United States regarding e-book pricing.

I feel that it is wrong for the Department of Justice to focus its anti-trust efforts against Apple and the major book publishers for their implementation of the so-called “agency model” for pricing. There are restraint of trade issues in our industry, but this litigation is misdirected and likely to exacerbate those issues.

The decision by each book publisher to implement agency pricing was in response to’s policy and practice  of setting prices on e-books below cost in order to drive other potential sellers of these products out of the market, thus giving Amazon a virtual monopoly on the sale of e-books. This strategy was  enhanced by the manner in which Amazon designed and marketed it’s Kindle format editions of e-books,  so that those books could only be read on Amazon’s proprietary Kindle book readers, and only purchased on the Amazon web site.  Amazon  refused to allow other potential competitors in the e-book business to sell Kindle edition titles. At the time that publishers began contemplating implementation of the agency model, Kindle Editions accounted for 90% of  book sales on e-book readers.

Amazon was able to  sustain this otherwise ruinous pricing policy, because it could  offset its losses by driving people to its website where they would also purchase more profitable items.

The dangers implicit in this strategy  can be demonstrated. Amazon has shown its willingness to stop selling titles by publishers who will not agree to Amazon’s trade terms. This happened recently with 5000 Independent Publisher Group titles.  As a result, these e-books  are simply not available to the 60% of  all e-book readers who read e-books on their  Kindles.

Amazon’s policies have already had a devastating effect on community based bookstores including the recently bankrupt Border’s, Barnes and Noble, and the thousands of independent booksellers across the country.

The United States should be pursuing policies that discourage excessive concentration in industries, particularly when that concentration will reduce  the free dissemination of ideas in the country. The current litigation and settlement agreements against the major book publishers is doing quite the opposite.

Andy Ross

Andy Ross Agency

The Justice Department vs. Book Publishers: What This Really Means

March 10, 2012

The Anti-Trust Division of The Justice Department announced  this week that it is considering filing charges against Apple Computer  and 5 of the largest book publishers for violating anti-trust laws. The issue, at least as far as I can determine, is whether there were illegal agreements  made between Apple and the  5 publishers to  fix  the retail price on e-books.  It is illegal under anti-trust law to make agreements to “restrain trade”.

I know a little about anti-trust law. When I was a bookseller, I was involved for about 20 years in various anti-trust lawsuits having to do with unfair competition by chain stores. I won’t go into detail here about anti-trust except to say that the laws are incredibly arcane and usually hinge on “facts” that are murky at best. And I do not know the specific facts of this case that would either incriminate or exonerate the putative conspirators.

So let’s talk about what this means in the real world. Here’s the back story. In 2010 when Apple was poised to release the iPad, Amazon controlled about 90% of the e-book business. Amazon sold books in the proprietary Kindle format which could only be read on Kindle readers. If you had  a Kindle reader (and at that time most e-book consumers did), you had to buy your e-books from Amazon.

As is their wont, Amazon began selling newly released best selling e-books at $9.95, below their cost which was typically about $12.50. This was anathema to publishers for a number of reasons. 1) The prices were so low that it had the  potential effect of eviscerating  sales of the print on paper editions. Publishers recognized that e-books should be cheaper, but not that cheap. 2) Related to this, publishers felt that Amazon’s selling below cost would discourage entry of other  potential vendors in the e-book business. This would leave publishers  completely beholden to one vendor, Amazon, whom they have never really felt comfortable with.  3) Finally this kind of pricing would put into the heads of consumers that there was an inherent  value to an e-book of $9.95. Presumably Amazon had no intention of selling below cost forever and they would  eventually use their monopolistic power to  force publishers to reduce the prices on  e-books books.  Amazon would  then have a sustainable business model. But publishers probably wouldn’t.

Enter the Apple iPad. At last the publishers hoped that they could break the Amazon monopoly by throwing themselves into the arms of  the only company with the resources to compete successfully against Amazon. Apple Computer    has the highest capitalization of any company in America, probably the world. Compared to Apple, Amazon is a mere street peddler.  Apple and the publishers worked out an alternative system for selling books that was similar to the  relationship iTunes had with music publishers.

Most products for sale in  retail stores are purchased   at “wholesale” for a low price, and the retailer can set any price they want. Thus the old saw that all you need to know in retail is: “buy low, sell high”. But Amazon had the resources to buy low and sell lower,  to sell below cost for as long as it took to drive out the weaker competition. After all, they could make up  the lost profits by selling more Kindle Readers and driving business to their other products. Cameras, shaving cream, what have you.

Apple and the six largest trade publishers adopted a new model. Rather than giving a lower wholesale price to a vendor and letting the vendor set the retail price, under the new “agency” model, the publisher would set the retail price of the book and give the vendor (say Apple or Amazon) a 30% commission on the sale. There were many complicated deals made (that may or may not have been legal) that would force Amazon to accept this new “agency” model. Amazon would have to sell the e-books at the same price as their competition, thus defeating what has always been Amazon’s competitive strategy.

The Justice Department argues that this new “agency” model  is bad for the consumer because it tends to insure that e-books are selling at a higher price than they otherwise would if  the retailer was able set its own price. Publishers argue that the “wholesale” model would create an unhealthy monopoly by Amazon  that would not be in the long term interest of book buyers and society at large.

Yesterday, the Author’s Guild weighed in on this issue. The president of the Guild, Scott Turow, sent a letter    to all of its members calling the decision by the Justice Department to challenge Apple and the 5 publishers: “grim news”. As most of the followers of this blog know, I have frequently expressed my own concerns about the sometimes  unhealthy power of Amazon in the book business.

Turow was speaking for the interests of authors, but he makes some powerful points about the ultimate impact of a de facto monopoly by Amazon. He is concerned, as are publishers, that predatory pricing of e-books will attenuate the ability of physical bookstores to compete. He says that it is as if: “Netflix announced that it would stream new movies the same weekend they opened in theaters.”

Turow goes on to say: “Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors….A robust book marketplace demands both bookstore showrooms to properly display new titles and online distribution for the convenience of customers.”

He also points out that 2 years after the agency model was implemented Amazon’s market share of e-books is down to about 60%.  Barnes and Noble  has successfully entered  the market with its highly regarded Nook. Apple has an excellent e-book store. I can say first hand that the iPad is an insanely good e-reader. You can even buy e-books from your independent store through Google books – and at prices competitive with Amazon.

Last week we wrote about the fact that Amazon stopped selling 6000 titles from America’s second largest small press distributor, IPG, after a dispute over terms. Those books are simply not available to people with Kindle readers. I think this fact tells us all we need to know about what this dispute means to society at large.