This is for authors, agents and publishers but book-lovers might well be interested.
Years ago, I came up with the term Fair Reading but failed to get very far with it. At the time, people seemed to think all authors were rich; now I think they realise we're not. Fair Reading echoes Fair Trade because it asks purchasers to consider that buying choices have consequences for the end producer. In Fair Reading, the end producer is the author. ("Author" means writer and/or illustrator.) Some purchasers will still choose to buy at super-high discount, of course. That's their right. But many, I argue, will choose to pay a fairer price when they realise the consequences. I don't mean to send anyone on a guilt-trip - it's entirely every buyer's choice. But I'd like it to be an informed choice and many readers just don't realise the next point.
When books are highly-discounted, the author receives much less money. (It can even be zero but it is routinely a few pence.) Our royalty % becomes a % of what the publisher receives, not a % of the cover price.
This wouldn't matter so much if the author had a say in the discount. There may be times when we would agree that there was good reason for one of these so-called Special Sales. (High volume, ultra-high-discount sale, often to a special outlet or book club.) It could be a temporary promotion; it could be to generate interest in a flagging book; it could have ethical benefit.
That is what Special Sales used to be for. Now, they are far, far too common. Which, again, wouldn't matter so much if the author had a say. Sometimes, authors do have a say. But not often enough. It is too rarely written into a contract.
So, the Society of Authors, on the back of a tremendous amount of work by the Children's Writers and Illustrators Group committee which I chaired until very recently, and at the instigation of James Mayhew, are starting a new campaignThis blogpost is my personal take on this. You can see the important piece in the Bookseller by SoA CEO, Nicola Solomon, here. There's a fantastic Seven Steps for Publishers, a call to action which you can show to your publisher/agent.
Part of wider Fair Reading, the Special Sales campaign is aimed at:
- Authors (and agents) - to encourage them to negotiate appropriate fair terms into all contracts, and of course it affects agents very much
- Publishers - to encourage them to understand that these sales can negatively impact authors on already small incomes and that it's right that authors should be part of the decision about such huge discounts.
Finally, we want to work with publishers to make sure that these Special Sales copies end up sold through the channels they were intended for. This is the topic of the "grey market". Having a special ISBN can help this. As can recording the size of a print-run on a royalty statement.
Publishers say, "But these special sales can be really good for you"
- I'd say: Fine, so what is the problem with asking our permission? You explain your strategy and we might agree. But, please, make sure what you really mean is not, "This sale will be good for us, the publisher, because it will bring in guaranteed income (because these deals are "firm sale" rather than sale or return) and increase our volume sales, and it's just one book of the many that we are publishing this year so the fact that it hasn't earned much isn't a problem for us." It is very likely to be a problem for the author, who only has that one book to earn a living from.
Publishers say, "But there is no evidence that these sales cannibalise your traditional sales. Look: your sales continued to rise during the period of the special sale!"
- I'd say: Actually, there is no evidence that these sales did not cannibalise traditional sales. The fact that the sales continued to go up tells us precisely nothing. They could have been rising because the author did a fantastic job promoting the book through events, because the publisher did some good work in marketing, because it got some great reviews, because it's a damn fine book, damn finely published.
Publishers say, "But sometimes we have to make these decisions super-fast and we can't get hold of you."
- I'd say: Often you don't have to make them super-fast. Even if you do, it's a rare author/agent who doesn't or can't respond to an urgent request the same day. And to cover the ultra-rare occasions where the request isn't answered in time, it is not difficult to build a buffer into the clause.
What can you do, as authors?
- Be informed. See the Society of Authors Where We Stand page. This is the result of huge hard work by the CWIG committee and SoA staff. Particular thanks to James Mayhew, who began this conversation here. He and I have led a very onside team.
- Show that page to your agent, if you have one, and discuss how you will a) approach this topic when you negotiate future contracts and b) open a conversation about existing contracts so that your publishers agree to discuss special sales deals with you. Opening a conversation is a very good start.
- Be clear that you are not against promotional discounts; just that you want to be part of the decision-making
- Be empowered. There is no such thing as a completely non-negotiable contract. There are two specific areas of your contract I'd suggest you focus on in this respect. Bearing in mind that there are some kinds of contract (such as those that are part of a publisher-generated series that you've contributed to) where there is less room for negotiation, here are the two areas:
Negotiate IN: The consult/refer clauseWhat you're looking for is the chance to be part of the discussion about a forthcoming high-volume ultra-high discount deal. Here are some wordings I'd personally like:
- (My preferred) The publisher agrees to refer all such* special sales to the author for approval (*They must have been properly defined.)
- (Failing that) The publisher agrees to consult with the author before proceeding with such special sales.
- Also aim for: The publisher will make every effort to ensure that Special Sales are tracked so that data can be obtained.
Negotiate OUT: the falling royalty rateWhen royalties are a % of net receipts, not cover price, tell me why it might be OK that a royalty rate should fall when the discount rises. I'd find it easier to argue that royalty % should rise if the discount rises, when it's based on net receipts!
- If your % for a paperback is 8%, for example, try to avoid the royalty rate falling to 3.5% (not uncommon) for discounts over a certain amount. I'd argue for no reduction where possible.
- Do appreciate, however, that there are books/contracts where such a result would be hard to achieve. For me, personally, it's a red line, but then I'm not writing within an existing publisher-driven series.
I'm very confident that others will follow because, in the long run, this helps us all. It raises the value of books, harnesses the positivity and passion of authors and the professionalism of publishers. They have the same aims as us: to sell more books and make a living in our chosen professions. It's just that we also each have some different pressures and the balance of power has shifted too far to the detriment of most authors.
We seek to rectify that and build stronger partnerships. With the help of empowered authors, writing great books, and decent publishers entering a genuine partnership with us, we can.
To remind you: What can you do now?
- Read and share Nicola Solomon's Bookseller piece of today
- Read, share and bookmark the SoA Where We Stand page
- Share this blogpost - and please comment below
- Talk to your agent
- Talk to the SoA contracts people about what you can negotiate for your own contracts
- Remember: the best publishing is a partnership
Remember that membership of the Society of Authors gives you access to free contract vetting and advice. They really are the experts. They also campaign for us, as our trade union, and the CEO regularly meets publishers at the highest level to argue for change and partnership on our behalf.
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