Thursday, May 31, 2012

JA Konrath vs. Stephen King

Mr. King has a new novel coming out from Hard Case Crime, an imprint I've always enjoyed.

This book, Joyland, will be released as a paperback in June, 2013.

It has no scheduled ebook date.

Quote Mr. King: "I love crime, I love mysteries, and I love ghosts. That combo made Hard Case Crime the perfect venue for this book, which is one of my favorites. I also loved the paperbacks I grew up with as a kid, and for that reason, we’re going to hold off on e-publishing this one for the time being. Joyland will be coming out in paperback, and folks who want to read it will have to buy the actual book."

I congratulate Steve on being one of the only bestselling authors to advocate and endorse ebook piracy. I am sure Joyland will race up the NYT List even as it becomes the most pirated ebook of all time, which will show once and for all that piracy doesn't hurt sales.

While Mr. King ignores the preferences of his fans and pretends the future of publishing isn't upon us, this is what I've been doing to embrace the future.

It's no secret that people judge books by their covers. The cover is the first thing a potential buyer sees, and if it is eye-catching, provocative, interesting, or compelling, it gets the reader to take a closer look.

These are examples. For the moment, the only place I'm going to use them is on my website. But it's my guess that online retailers will one day embrace animated ebook covers. There's a lot of potential here. Besides being attention-getting, short animations could be used to show something about the book--maybe a scene or a dramatic moment. They could announce a sale, with a big "99 CENTS" blinking on the cover. They expand opportunity for creativity, both by the cover artist and the author.

There's ZERO reason why animation can't be used. These are GIF files, which are about as universal as JPGs. All computers can read them. Most devices can read them.

Now let's take some questions.

Q: Joe, I HATE these covers! I believe book covers should be a single image, like they've always been! I'm a purist! I weep for the future of publishing!

A: Technology marches on, regardless of personal taste. Lots of people still resist ebooks (right, Mr. King?)

Q: I can imagine looking at a retailer website with a dozen animated ebook covers on it. It'll give me motion sickness. What a terrible idea.

A: The Internet moves. We're used to having things flash and wiggle and turn. But I can see retailers using these so they only move if you mouse over them, or click on them.

Q: Arghh! I already have to pay a lot for cover art. Now I've got to pay extra to have it animated?!?!

A: No one is forcing you to do anything.

Q: Who did these for you and how much was it?

A: My cover artist, Carl Graves, did them. He charged me $350 for the original cover, and $500 to make it move. I don't know what he'd charge you. Depends on what you need.

Currently, Carl is hanging out with me and a bunch of writers at BeerKon, and we'll both be away from our computers until the second week of June.

Q: Aren't these really large files which will cause delays in page loading times?

A: Carl and I are working on making them smaller. The List is the largest, and it's also the lowest resolution--he had to remove colors to get it under 2mb, which explains the pixelation. Too much motion, I guess. Flee is 700kb. Origin is only 75kb.

Q: And you really think this is the future?

A: Yes. But what do I know about predicting the future?

Q: So tell us how you really feel about Stephen King not releasing Joyride as an ebook?

A: I like Hard Case Crime. And I see why King is doing this--it's a nice way of thanking the publisher, and the booksellers. But it isn't nice to the millions of fans who support Mr. King in ebook format. I bet they believe ebooks are "actual books" and they'll be vocal in their disapproval.

Joyland will no doubt be pirated like crazy, and money will be left on the table by King and Hard Case. It's backwards thinking, and a mistake.

We'll see how much negative publicity he gets.

We'll also see if animated covers start catching on.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


When it is running at its peak, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing gets over 30,000 hits per day.

This traffic means nothing to me personally. I don't care about fame for fame's sake. I don't care about what people think of me. I'm as immune to detractors as I am to those who offer praise, and I get plenty of both. It's nice to be thought of, but that's not what lights my fire.

This traffic means nothing to me financially. The majority of those who read this blog are writers, not fans. Readers don't care about the publishing industry. While I have, on occasion, used this platform to promote a book, it is almost always linked to a point I'm trying to make, an argument I'm trying to present. I don't have paid ads on this blog, or my website. A Newbie's Guide doesn't generate any direct income for me, and any indirect income is unverifiable.

This traffic means nothing to me altruistically. While I know this blog has helped many writers by informing, persuading, and inspiring, it is impossible to be directly connected to that many people. I get dozens of "thank yous" a week. It's flattering, but I stopped taking it personally a long time ago. I don't write this blog to help people, or make the world a better place.

But I do care about traffic. I want as many people to visit this blog as possible. Not for my ego or my bank account. Not for any cause celebre or romantic notions of fighting the system.

This blog exists as a tool to help me learn.

There is a certain amount to be personally gained from writing persuasive essays, from presenting arguments using logic and facts, from sharing information. Doing so helps me improve my debating skills and hone my position and distill my thoughts.

But everything I write is already in my brain. That's not the way to learn. Knowledge comes from seeking outside sources of information, from looking at other points of view, from being forced to defend an argument or position from an attack that hadn't been considered, from changing viewpoints as new information or better logic presents itself.

I go looking for that information. But there's also another way to obtain it. Namely, to host a forum, and let the information come to me in the form of comments.

This blog would not exist without the commentors. And if you're a regular visitor, you know how long these comment threads can go on. How many blogs get 600 comments in a single thread? How many people leave a message saying "I learned just as much from the comments as the post"?

I read every comment. I hardly ever reply to praise, or thanks. But I do reply to those who disagree, who try to disprove whatever point I attempted to make in the blog post. I also respond to whiny, anonymous pinheads.

We'll get back to the pinheads in a moment.

A Newbie's Guide to Publishing allows me to make arguments, then refine them in the comments section. I learn from the comments. I'm made more aware, more knowledgeable, more informed. The commentors make me step up my game, which makes me think harder, which makes me experiment more, which ultimately benefits my career.

When I benefit, other writers seem to benefit. It's a nice, efficient, reciprocal relationship. Everybody wins. Even the pinheads who can't stand me. They get to feel superior and self-righteous, and they come here and take anonymous potshots at me, and then I get to humiliate them, and people come to watch the trainwreck. They form camps, polarize opinions, and discuss the topics here and elsewhere. Some of that discussion trickles back to me. Some of it I benefit from.

Are you getting where I'm going?

I could treat everyone graciously, with respect. I could discuss issues and make arguments without getting personal. I could act like a level-headed adult and never be provocative. I could trade being outspoken for being genteel.

Do you think I'd get as many blog hits? Do you think I'd get as many comments? Do you think the points I make would be as widely discussed and debated if I presented them in a more courteous way?

If so, point to another blog that averages 100 comments per post.

There is a whole sub-section of folks in the entertainment and news-entertainment industries that draw big crowds not only because of what they stand for, but how they say it. Radio shock jocks. Right wing political commentators. Controversial talk show hosts. They biggered their platforms by being opinionated loudmouths who don't care what people think.

Sound familiar?

The more traffic I get, the more comments I get. The more comments I get, the more I learn.

In short, I learn more by calling people pinheads. It attracts a larger crowd, draws more minds to the topics I discuss, and I improve as a result.

People take me to task for tone quite a bit. I see three reasons for this.

1. They can't attack my main arguments, so they have to focus on my attitude.

2. It makes certain people feel morally superior (Perhaps some of them use disrespect as a tool like I do, to learn from it, but I haven't seen any evidence of that.)

3. The targets in many of my blog posts are ignorant, greedy, brainwashed liars who present their poor arguments respectfully. If you are on the side of these pinheads (and therefore are yourself a pinhead) you become defensive when your stupidity is laid bare to the world. Pointing fingers at my tone is a defensive, ad hominem reaction.

While being attacked for my tone is distracting, the distraction is outweighed by the benefits of a larger audience. I don't mind being attacked if it leads to me learning.

Here's a terrific blog post called Tone Argument as Logical Fallacy. I have no idea who this blogger is. They haven't blogged a lot, or in a while. But this is a clear and concise explanation of tone that boils down to this: "I can call you an idiot and 2 + 2 still equals 4."

So why am I blogging about this at all? If I don't care what people think, why do I need to show the world why I do what I do? Why would I inform the pinheads who take me to task for tone that they're helping me out?

Because now, when someone brings up my tone in some discussion, I can simply link to this post. Then, hopefully, we can get over my tone and begin discussing the points I made.

When I debate, I am always as gracious as the person I debate. That may sound incorrect, considering how I skewer people on this blog, but my skewerings are always based upon dismantling an opponent's argument and revealing it to be stupid. If you say something stupid on the Internet, you open yourself up to justifiably being called stupid. But if you want to engage me one-on-one, I'll be as nice as you are, even if you are acting stupid.

My intent is not to convert writers to Joe's Way of Thinking. It's great that a bunch of writers are making money, some for the first time, because of my blog. It's great that more and more writers are realizing how shitty the legacy publishing world is. But those are all secondary benefits to me.

I'm here to learn. And I don't learn from people who agree 100% with everything I say. I learn from those who disagree. Or partly disagree. Every so often some anonymous poster says something that makes me reconsider my views. That's why I allow anonymous posting. Though it is entertaining to bitchslap the offended, which brings more traffic and thus more attention to the issues I present, this blog is not meant to persuade anyone but me.

Could I persuade more people to do what I do if I was nicer? Sure. But how is it in my best interest to persuade more people to do what I do? Wouldn't I learn more from angering the establishment so much they begin working hard to think of ways to prove me wrong?

I am purposefully controversial, intentionally disrespectful, and use tone in a precise, deliberate way that benefits me.

So suck on that, pinheads.

And if you want me to stop saying you're stupid, stop acting stupid. If you really hate me, that's the way to hurt me. If you stop saying and doing stupid things, you'll effectively reduce my audience. Your vocal hate makes me stronger.

But it's my guess you're too stupid to know that.



Monday, May 28, 2012

Joe's Letter to the DOJ

United States v. Apple, Inc. et al., No. 12-CV-2826(DLC) (S.D.N.Y.) – Comments on Proposed Final Judgment as to Defendants Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster

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

May 28, 2012

Dear Mr. Read,

I’m writing to you as the author of forty-six books--eight legacy published, two Amazon published (with three more on the way), and thirty-six self-published, all of which inform the views I express in this letter.

As you doubtless recognize from the mail you’re receiving, there is currently underway a letter-writing campaign coordinated by the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the Authors Guild, and other parts of the publishing establishment attempting to persuade you that the DOJ’s suit against five of the Big Six and Apple is without merit, and that the Agency model is, at best, good for everyone, at worst, harmless. 

I’m writing to tell you that these organizations did not solicit the views of their members, that they in no way speak on behalf of all or even most of their members, and that (as I imagine is obvious) they are motivated not by what’s best for consumers, but by what they see as best for themselves.

I recognize that the heart of the DOJ’s suit is collusion, not high prices. But it’s clear that the legacy publishing industry’s strategy is to keep the prices of ebooks high so as not to cannibalize high-margin hardback sales. If the prices of legacy published books are kept artificially high it could be argued that my lower-priced self-published books are made more attractive by comparison, but I believe that a regime of higher-priced books is bad for the industry overall because it slows the growth of the global book market, which indeed hurts all sales. I also believe it’s obviously bad for consumers, especially lower-income consumers, who could buy more of the books they loved if those books weren’t priced so high.

When prices of media are high, they’re a barrier to entry. Many are avoiding buying an ereader because the ebooks they most want are $9.99 - $14.99. If prices came down, more Kindles (and Kobo readers and Nooks and Sony readers) would be sold. That widens the market, which leads to more ebook sales. This is good for authors, and for readers who can get more for their money. 

I write a popular blog, notable in the industry for its contrary opinions, called A Newbie's Guide to Publishing and I'm including four recent blog posts to underscore some of the points I make above, and the structural problems in the publishing industry as they relate to the DOJ suit.

The first, written by Barry Eisler (a former attorney and author of eight legacy-published books, two with Amazon's Thomas & Mercer imprint, and four self-published titles), succinctly explains how big publishers function as a cartel (or, as it was recently revealed they refer to themselves, a “club”).

The second explains how the agency publishing model harms authors and consumers.

The third and fourth are direct refutations of two letters sent to you--one by the Association of Authors’ Representatives, and one by agent Simon Lipskar, president of a literary agency called Writers House. I have done my best to show how poorly thought-out, disingenuous, misleading, and sometimes outright deceitful these letters are.

The language I've used to rebuke these agents is the language I use on my blog, which is casual, coarse, and accusatory. I mention this just so you’ll know that despite what I think is justifiable anger at the industry practices which I believe betray authors and harm readers, I recognize there’s a difference in the kind of tone one can use in a blog and the kind one ought to use in a letter like this one.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to read these posts. Though it is my understanding that the goal of the DOJ's suit is to protect consumers, it is my belief that the group most harmed by the actions of the publishing cartel is writers, who have been forced to accept onerous, often unconscionable contract terms without recourse. The Association of Authors' Representatives, and the Authors Guild, which purportedly defend the rights of writers, in fact work for the publishers. For decades, thousands of writers have been exploited by a powerful industry that universally offers nonnegotiable, one-sided terms, which have gone unchallenged. To that end I offer three more links to posts I have written,, and

Also, I should mention a point that was brought up in the comments to one of these posts (the comments are a great place to read what writers and readers really feel about this issue). I'll paraphrase: "Why is it the Big 6 had no problems with Amazon when they were drastically discounting hardcover book prices, but when Amazon does the same thing with ebooks it is suddenly the end of competition?"

These blog posts show that Amazon has not destroyed competition. In fact, it is the only company encouraging it. 

Sincerely yours,

Joe Konrath

(the mailed and emailed letters contain the referenced blog posts in their entirety)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Unconscionability (also known as unconscientious dealings) is a term used in contract law to describe a defense against the enforcement of a contract based on the presence of terms that are excessively unfair to one party. Typically, such a contract is held to be unenforceable because the consideration offered is lacking or is so obviously inadequate that to enforce the contract would be unfair to the party seeking to escape the contract.

If you read this blog, you know where I'm going with this. I'm going to point out some of the more one-sided, onerous terms in a standard publishing contract. And make no mistake--these are practically universal, and for the most part, non-negotiable.

For decades, the only way to get widespread distribution was to sign with a publisher. Writers had no choice. You either accepted the terms, or your book stayed in a file cabinet.

Now, I'm not a lawyer, and nothing in this blog post can or should be taken as legal advice. I'm just someone who has signed publishing contracts and gotten taken advantage of. If any of my interpretations are wrong, I welcome thoughts from those who know better.

Let's start with one of the most obvious, and despicable, clauses, the Grant of Rights.

Author grants and assigns to Publisher the sole and exclusive rights to the Material throughout the Territory during the entire term of the copyright and any renewals and extensions thereof.

In other words, this contract is for the life of the author, plus 70 years after her death, plus renewals and extensions.

Off the top of my head I can't think of any contract that extends beyond the life of the person who signed it. I would guess that my heirs would be bound to this contract, and potentially their heirs as well.

Does that seem a bit one-sided? Perhaps a smidgen unfair to the author?

"Territory" refers to where in the world the publisher is allowed to exploit these rights. In several of my contracts, Territory encompasses the entire world.

I don't consider that unfair, especially if a publisher pays extra for these territories. But none of my contracts have clauses that say I get those rights back if the publisher doesn't exploit them after a certain length of time.

So the publisher can have French or Japanese or Urdu rights for my lifetime plus 70 years, and might never do anything with them. But I can't do anything with them, either.

Subsidiary rights follow a similar pattern. According to this contract I'm citing, the Publisher has the exclusive rights to:

  • Periodical or newspaper before and following publication
  • Publication of condensations, abridgments, and in anthologies
  • Book club publication
  • Direct sale and mail order
  • Braille
How many of these rights have they exploited?
  • ZERO
Why does this seem to me like a selfish child who has too many toys, but refuses to let you play with any of them, even though he won't ever use them himself?

Joint accounting, or basketing, is another clause many authors (me included) got saddled with.

Books 1, 2, and 3 will be held in a joint and open account, and Publisher shall not pay Author's share of royalties and subsidiary rights income on any Book of the Work until Author's share of royalties and subsidiary rights income for all Books exceeds the total advance.

In layman's terms, if you have a three-book deal with an advance of $30,000, you don't make a cent in royalties until all $30,000 has earned out.

Kristine Rusch does a fine job breaking down how this can hurt the author:

If book three earns royalties, those royalties go toward paying off the advances on books one and two. Like this:

  • Advance for book one: $10,000
  • Advance for book two: $10,000
  • Advance for book three: $10,000
  • Book one only earned back $5,000 toward its advance. Book two only earned $6,000 toward its advance.
  • Book three earned $12,000—paying off its advance, with a $2,000 profit.
  • In a standard contract without basket accounting, the writer would have received the $2,000 as a royalty payment.

But with basket accounting, the writer receives nothing. That accounting looks like this:

  • Advance on contract 1: $30,000
  • Earnings on contract 1: $23,000
  • Amount still owed before the advance earns out: $7,000
  • Instead of getting $2,000, the writer looks at the contract and realizes she still has $7,000 before earning out.
  • Without basket accounting, she would have to earn $5,000 to earn out Book 1, and $4,000 to earn out Book 2, but Book 3 would be paying her cold hard cash.

Got the difference?

In short, you can have a successful book, but won't get royalties because other books in the basket weren't as successful (or haven't been released yet.) While this may not seem unreasonable, it certainly favors the publisher. Especially since it is often the publisher's fault a book doesn't sell.

I signed two separate three-book deals with Hyperion. My agent fought to get the basketing clauses removed, but removal was a deal breaker for the publisher.

On the first three books, I was in a royalty situation and had completely earned out within a few years. But on book #4 (the first book in the second contract) my publisher dropped their mystery line and gave my books zero support. No touring (I had two previous tours), no co-op or advertising (I'd gotten a bit of each previously) and they really messed up advance orders so books weren't available in certain key markets on release dates. Despite the fact that two of my hardcovers went into second printings, basketing delayed my royalties at a time when I really needed the money.

Speaking of royalties...

Hardcover: 10% of the invoice price for the first 5000 copies, 12.5% thereof for copies from 5001 to 10,000, and 15% thereof for copies in excess of 10,000.

Mass Market Paperback: 8% of the invoice price for the first 150,000 and 10% thereof for all copies thereafter.

On Ebooks: 25% of the amounts received by Publisher, excluding taxes and invoiced shipping and handling charges. if any.

There are several things I find interesting about this section. First, it's how very little the artist gets. I mean, the Author is the sole reason the Work exists in the first place. But getting, at most, 15% of the hardcover price and  10% of the paperback seems pretty unreasonable.

As can be expected, while sales are basketed, royalties are not. For example, in a three-book deal, if I sell 50,000 copies of Book #1, 50,000 copies of Book #2, and 50,000 Copies of Book #3 (or 150,000 copies total) it doesn't mean I get 10% royalties on them from then on. They each have to sell 150,000 copies for that to happen. That's a pretty big double-standard, ain't it?

But artists tend to get screwed all the time. I've read accounts of musicians getting pennies per album sold and how blockbuster Hollywood movies don't make money (thanks to Techdirt and the irrepressible Mike Masnik for those overviews).

Admitting the problem is widespread doesn't mean it should be ignored. Big companies are exploiting artists. They're getting rich, and the creators are getting shafted.

And for those who want to chime in with "no one forced the artist to sign the deal", that's blaming the victim. "The artist wasn't forced" is a nonsequitur response to "the contract isn't fair." Indentured servants aren't forced either. Nor are field hands picking potatoes in inhumane conditions. Nor are children working in third world sweatshops. Would you argue the conditions of their employment are fair because they went into the agreement willingly?

And for those who want to chime in that these above examples are extreme and offensive and not comparable, let me respond that a kid in a coalmine or a factory worker on an unsafe assembly line or a guy who is paying off his boat ticket to America isn't being forced to work his entire life, plus seventy years.

But besides how little the Author makes per book sold, I'm also curious how these percentages were arrived at. Especially the 25% royalties on ebooks. This comes out to 17.5% of the list price. The publisher gets 52.5% of the list price. And, correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to be much easier and cheaper to format and upload a single ebook file to Amazon than it does to print and ship 50,000 paperbacks.

In fact, I can format and upload to Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Overdrive, and B&N in an hour, and it costs me around $300 thanks to the efforts of Rob Siders. And Rob's ebooks look a helluva lot nicer than many of the Big Publishers ebooks.

Yet publishers have somehow decided that 17.5% is the Author share.

Even more fascinating, they've pretty much ALL DECIDED THIS.

We call the six biggest publishers the Big 6. They envelop dozens of imprints. But there are also many other big hitters in publishing (Scholastic, Harlequin, Disney) and lots of mid-sized and smaller publishers, and somehow they've all arrived at the EXACT SAME ROYALTY RATES.

You can go to different publishers and get higher advances. But unless you are a gigantic bestselling name-brand author, I have never heard of a case where a Publisher offers an Author better royalty rates.

Why is this? You'd think, since publishing claims to be so competitive, that they would lure writers any way they could. Yet they all appear to be in lockstep, offering the exact same royalties.

Isn't that interesting how they all came to the same conclusion and exploited authors in the same exact way? If I didn't know any better, I'd swear these publishers were maybe secretly talking to one another and comparing notes and tacitly agreeing on royalty rates. But they'd never do that, right?

Publisher shall pay Author, as an advance against sums due to the Author hereunder, as follows:

In as many small pieces and over as long a term as possible.

Of course, no contract actually is worded that way. But I've seen many contracts, and the Publisher often tries to break up the advance and spread it out over a long period of time as certain conditions are met, such as signing the Agreement, delivery and acceptance of material, delivery and acceptance of outline, publication date, six months after publication date, six months after paperback publication date, etc.

It is to the Publisher's advantage to delay payment. The longer they do, the more interest they can earn on the principal. It isn't unusual for a contract to be paid out in chunks over several years.

And once it earns out...

Publisher shall provide Author with semi-annual royalty statements showing the amount due to the Author, by April 1 and October 1 of each year for the six-month period ending the preceding December 31 and June 30th, respectively.

Now I can understand how years ago--during the age of snail mail and hand counting--it could take months to compile actual sales data.

But now we have bar codes and the Internet and spreadsheets. Information gathering and transfer is easier, faster, and more accurate than ever. So why are we getting paid every six months?

Can you imagine working a fulltime job, then not getting a paycheck until nine months later? (that's six months of data, which takes three additional months to compile.)

Smashwords pays quarterly, and Mark Coker has a much smaller staff than any major publisher. Kindle, B&N, and Createspace pay monthly. It can be done. But it isn't. And you don't see any of the companies I just mentioned doing this:

Publisher may retain a reasonable reserve against returns in any accounting period. If Author receives an overpayment of royalties resulting from copies of the Work reported sold but subsequently returned, Author shall repay such amounts to Publisher to the extent that Publisher is not able to deduct such amounts from monies due to Author at the end of the royalty payment period after the period in which the overpayment is discovered.


Again, I'm no lawyer, but this clause looks like a Publisher can pretty much withhold money from an author. It doesn't define what a "reasonable" reserve is, and doesn't state what conditions need to be met for this to happen. Then it mentions that if it overpays (it can happen--the Publisher only had nine scant months to figure their numbers out), the Author has to repay.

Speaking of repay, during my last contract, with Ace/Berkley, I broke the contract and didn't turn in the second book in a two-book deal. The publisher wanted their advance returned within 30 days of sending me a formal letter, which it did a few weeks after we ended the agreement.

In other words, the Publisher pays the Author slowly, over a long period of time (months or years), and at any given moment can hold onto money due the Author for no specific reason. But when the Author owes the Publisher, it needs to be paid back immediately, or else there will be Trouble.

Here's one of my favorite one-sided clauses that no one seems to pay much attention to:

Unsatisfactory Material: If the Material for a given Book is not, in Publisher's sole judgement, satisfactory in all respects, Publisher may terminate this Agreement upon written notice.

This clause has no specific criteria to determine if a Book is satisfactory. It's purely a judgement call. The Publisher can end the deal for pretty much any reason it sees fit, or for no reason at all. How's that for binding?

Those who read my blog know that Grand Central/Hachette refused to publish my second book in a two-book deal. It was apparently unsatisfactory.

I published it myself. That book, TRAPPED, has gotten 167 four & five star reviews on Amazon, and has earned me over $150,000 in less than two years.

So much for being unsatisfactory. (Incidentally, I did write another book for Grand Central, called ENDURANCE. They wanted editorial changes. I refused and pulled the book. It has also made $150k in under two years. Guess it really didn't need those edits, huh?)

But besides a Publisher being able to--on a whim--refuse to publish a book, the really unfair thing about this clause, and many of the clauses in a standard boilerplate book contract, is the author doesn't have even remotely equal power. Show me this clause:

Unsatisfactory Publication: If the Printed Book of the Work created by the Publisher is not, in the Author's sole judgement, satisfactory in all respects, Author may terminate this Agreement upon written notice.

Can you imagine? How would you like to fire your publisher for giving you a terrible cover or awful title? (Publishers have final approval on titles and covers.) What if they screw up the printing, like omitting the first line or publishing a book riddled with errors? What if they price it too high for the market which costs you sales and income?

The cover for my novel TIMECASTER was unsatisfactory in my opinion. It was generic, and conveyed nothing about the tone, plot, character, or setting. TIMECASTER takes place in a green, utopian future where plants grow on buildings and drugs are legal, the hero is a peace officer decked out with high-tech gear, and the book is loaded with humor and sex.

Though my self-pubbed sales were booming when this was published, Ace insisted on a pen name (and a tiny one at that.)

Compare their cover with the one my cover artist Carl Graves did for the UK edition.

Theirs shows a generic man (hero? villain? male model?) in a decidedly non-green urban area without anything high-tech or futuristic happening. There's fog and a moon (neither of which appear in the book) and nothing that indicates the novel is funny, sexy, or filled with action. It looks noirish and drab, which is the polar opposite of my story, and seems like the title should be BROODING ROMANCE OF THE WEREWOLF instead of TIMECASTER. And WTF is he standing on?
Ace Cover
My cover conveys humor (the smirk), sex (lipstick prints), drugs (leaf tattoo, 4:20 on belt which also speaks to the title), a cool taser, a badge indicating the hero is a cop, plus a tech/futuristic background.
My Cover
Now, some people may prefer Ace's cover, even though it misrepresents my book. That's not the point.

The point is that I find theirs terrible, but I have no recourse. The Author's opinion has none of the weight of the Publisher's opinion.

Publishing contracts ACROSS THE BOARD allow publishers to make a varied and infinite number of potentially career-ending mistakes on the writer’s behalf.

When Hachette found one of my novels unacceptable (and they were wrong) I had no defense--they simply refused to accept it. Even if I'm 100% wrong and Ace's cover is better than mine, I should still have a say. I wrote the book. But I lacked even miniscule bargaining power.

I spoke at length to my editor about TIMECASTER, telling her what I wanted in a cover, and was ignored. But I couldn't do anything. I certainly couldn't terminate the contract because I found my Publisher’s performance to be unsatisfactory.

TIMECASTER has been out for over a year in ebook and paperback, and I've seen it in just about every brick and mortar bookstore I've visited. Kudos to Penguin for doing a great job  with the distribution.

So far, in two royalty statements, TIMECASTER has earned me a total of $3708. That's $309 a month. Last January (in one month) I made $7700 on TRAPPED. So it’s pretty clear my publisher is dramatically underperforming. It also suggests that perhaps I understand a bit more about covers than they do.

But I can’t do anything about it. I don't have an Unsatisfactory Publication clause in my contract. No Author does.

Instead, the Author is faced with the continual threat of action against him by the Publisher at any time, and no definable cause.

Such penalties include (a) withholding payment due; (b) refusal to publish; (c) being forced to reimburse the Publisher for advances or monies due; (d) refusal to extend time for delivery (when Publisher consistently takes a lengthy amount of time to return signed contracts, pay advances, and pay royalties); (e) Indemnity (Author shall indemnify and hold Publisher harmless from any losses, expenses, settlements, recoveries, or judgements arising from or related to any claim, action or proceeding which would constitute a breach of Author's representations and warranties.)

So even though the Publisher takes the lion's share of the profits, it doesn't make any effort to protect the acquired Work from any lawsuits, so the Author takes all the blame and financial burden.

Contrast that to any Third-Party Infringement, where the Publisher can take legal action against copyright violators, then split the recovery 50/50 after being compensated for legal expenses.

So the Publisher will use lawyers to get money it feels it is owed, but not use lawyers to protect the Author who is being sued. It only protects itself, then bills the author.

Let's see what else is unconscionable in publishing contracts, shall we?

Competing Works: During the term hereof, Author shall not publish any book on the same or similar subject matter as any Book of the Work that would directly compete in the marketplace with sales of that Book of Work. Author shall not undertake to write another book for another Publisher until the Material for the last Book of the Work is delivered.

Again, I'm no lawyer, but to me this seems a lot like: Not only do we own your book, we own you.

What I do with my time is my business, isn't it? Shouldn't I be able to write other books, for myself or for other publishers?

And why do publishers think books compete with each other? Every bit of evidence I've accumulated, by both self-publishing and legacy publishing, shows that the more books I have available, the more I sell. Readers like one of my books, then buy the others. More titles means more chances of being discovered.

Yet this clause basically says, "as long as you work for us, you can't do anything else."

It gets even worse when there's also one of these:

Option: Author agrees not to submit an outline and sample chapter for Author's next book to any other publisher until such outline and sample chapter has first been submitted to Publisher, and Publisher has had 45 days to advise Author whether it wishes to publish the book and to negotiate a publication agreement with Author.

So not only does the Publisher own the Author in the present, it also holds the Author's future hostage.

Imagine if the reverse was true. What if the Author told the Publisher it couldn't publish any other author's books while it was publishing the Author's Work, and that the Publisher would need permission from the Author to publish any other books by anyone else in the future? How ridiculous does that sound?

But here is my favorite unfair clause.

Out-of-Print Termination: If a Book of the Work is out-of-print, Author may serve Publisher with a written notice requesting reversion of the rights granted hereunder. Publisher shall, within six months of receiving such notice, do one of the following: (i) declare in writing its intention to reissue an edition of the Book in question within six months; or (ii) enter into a licence providing for the publication in the United States of a new edition of the Book in question within six months; or (iii) revert in writing to Author the rights granted to Publisher herein for such Book. A Book of the Work shall be deemed out-of-print is, after two years from the date of first publication, no edition of that Book of the Work is available in the United States from Publisher or a licensee of Publisher and there is no license in effect which provides for the publication or reissue of an edition of that Book of the Work in the United States within 12 months from the date of notice.

Here's my burning question: When does an ebook ever go out of print?

I assume publishers are going to argue that an ebook counts as an "edition." If that's the case, why have an Out-of-Print clause at all? Isn't this absurd, contradictory, unjust, and/or unreasonable?

Let's say my many predictions are correct, and ebooks are the future. What's to prevent a publisher from keeping a book in print just to maintain control over the ebook rights? After all, when I ask for my rights back, they can take as long as 18 months to print more copies.

Is this fair? Especially since this contract was signed before the current ebook boom? Or can this be considered inadequate consideration?

I believe a reasonable person could look at these clauses and come to the conclusion that they are heavily weighted against the Author, and overwhelmingly biased favorably toward the Publisher.

But, hey, we should just be happy we got a deal at all, right? Especially one that gets us this fantastic clause that makes everything all better:

Twenty-five free copies of each book of the work and 50% off additional copies! Woo-hoo!

That, right there, is the ultimate slap-in-the-face placation.

"We understand what you want, Little Author. We know that the most important thing for you is  to get published, no matter what it takes. You can't pick your own title. You can't pick your own cover. You have to bend over and take everything we force upon you, and receive piss-poor compensation for it. But who cares! You're a real author now! And you get to buy books from us for half off!* Isn't it great to see your name on a real book! You finally made it! You should be so happy we did this for you!"

(*Half off as long as you don't resell them--that's in the contract.)

So... who represents our interests in these onerous, one-sided, contracts?

Is it agents?

Few agents have law degrees, so most aren't legally able to interpret or advise their clients on contract matters. (This while the Publisher has a whole team of lawyers.) Worse, agents have revealed themselves to be on the Publishers' side, which is an enormous conflict of interest.

The Authors Guild? Nope. They've also come out on the side of Publishers. Unlike the Writers Guild, which represents screenwriters, the Authors Guild has never lead a strike, never eliminated any of the unfair clauses mentioned above, and to my knowledge has never managed to improve or remove any of the unfair clauses mentioned above.

What we have here is an entire industry using boilerplate contracts and universally accepted one-sided clauses to exploit an entire segment of people.

This system is designed to take advantage of Authors' naivete and lack of bargaining power, and it uses the promise of publication as a carrot to get them to accept onerous, deeply biased terms.

Writers, and their agents, cannot effectively negotiate if the majority of the boilerplate is "my way or the highway."

Moreover, because the Big 6 are in such lockstep when it comes to this boilerplate, they have effectively created a unified front (don’t want to use the inflammatory M word--that’s only for Amazon). In other words, there is simply no other option because the Big Publishing Cartel have the unfair-contract market thoroughly cornered.

Finally, the contracts are so heavily weighted toward the Publisher that the Author can't get out of the bad deal he had no real choice but to sign.

And let's make that clear. Prior to the current ebook explosion, the Author had no choice. The only way to get into the stores that sell books was to sign a deal with a Publisher. Authors accepted unfair terms because the alternative was never seeing your book in print or making any money at all.

Does this fit the legal definition of unconscionability? I don't know, I'm not a lawyer. But it sure seems to fit the moral one.

I'm not an agent, either. I'm just a writer. But doesn't it make you wonder why a writer wrote this piece bemoaning the bias in publishing contracts, rather than an agent, or the AAR? Yet the AAR is sure quick to point out how fair the Agency model is, aren't they? Why isn't their board of directors sending letters to Publishers criticizing these unfair clauses, rather than letters to the DOJ supporting Publishers?

Rereading what I've written here, certain ideas and parallels spring to mind. We've got an all-powerful industry unfairly negotiating with the weak and hopeful. I believe this qualifies as exploitation. But there's something more going on here. Writers aren't just being exploited financially. Their dreams are also being exploited.

This is taking advantage of the desperate. It's akin to price gouging by overcharging for potable water after a disaster, or quacks who get a terminally ill patient to sign over his mortgage in the hopes that electric enemas will cure his cancer, or coyotes charging a whole year of wages for the chance to be smuggled into the American dream.

It's a sister to influence peddling, a cousin to payola, and a distant relative to price-fixing where the publishers universally maintain control via onerous contract terms.

It's reprehensible.

This is institutionalized corruption. And we can't expect anyone to fight for our rights. Until the rest of Big Publishing follow Houghton Mifflin Harcourt into bankruptcy, or a group of authors band together to fight these unconscionable contracts, nothing is going to improve.

But authors won't band together. The rich, successful ones don't want to jeopardize their favored status. The newbies and disenfranchised still scurry for a pat on the head, and are more than willing to fill any slot that opens up, even with onerous terms.

Agents won't form any sort of united front. They've already shown who they really work for. And even if a handful summoned up the courage to fight the status quo, chances are their authors wouldn't back them up out of fear.

Publishers won't change, because they have no incentive to.

So what's left?

Education. Information. Data. Knowledge. Logic. Common sense. Fisking. Debating. Arguing. Beating the drum over and over and OVER until it gets heard by all.

This industry is sick, and it isn't going to get better. But the more we talk about how unfair it is, the easier it becomes to break away from it.

Big Publishing needs to be exposed for what it is. It needs to be ridiculed. Those who defend it need to be revealed as ignorant, as cowardly, as wrong.

We can't change the industry. But we can damn sure hasten its demise by showing all authors--old veterans, struggling newbies, and those not even born yet--that there is another way to reach readers.

It's called self-publishing. If you read this blog, maybe you've heard of it.