Saturday, March 31, 2012

New words, old words, different words -- Editing vs. Proofreading

The past couple of weeks I've been working on minor edits and revisions to one of my previously print published books with the intention of putting a digital version up on Amazon.  Because the current digital file was spliced together from a variety of sources, I knew it would have to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb to make sure everything was as clean as possible before I began the actual conversion and then publication.

It's a tedious process.  The story is familiar and I know what I want to have written, so it's easy to see what should be there instead of what is there. 

It's also a complex process, because editing is not the same thing as proofreading.  As I found out when talking to a friend about it the other night, not everyone understands that difference.

Proofreading is a very simple, uncontroversial task.  The proofreader goes through the manuscript carefully looking for typographical errors, word usage errors, punctuation errors, grammatical mistakes, and other mechanical errors (and sometimes, but not always, ambiguities).  The proofreader does not look for factual errors, internal inconsistencies, or plot holes.

Here's a hypothetical segment from a hypothetical novel:

"Your not going to wear that dress are you"? Caitlin asked in exaxperation.

"I'll wear whatever I want to wear.  It's my party, not your's so don't tell me what I can and can't wear to it."  her younger sister declaired.

The two girls faced each other across the expance of the bed upon which the garment in question was spread in all it's crimson glory.

"Your just jealous," Vanessa said, "Because Mama made you wear pink for you birthday ball."

The older girl leaned to her left and punked her sister with her elbow.
A proofreader will fix the you/your/you're/yours errors, correct the punctuation and spelling, and will maybe ask if that "punked" should have been either "punched" or "poked" instead.  But there's no guarantee on that last one, because "punked" is a real word and maybe that's what the author intended to use.

A proofreader probably will not ask the author, "If the girls are on opposite sides of the bed, how did Caitlin poke Vanessa?"

That's a task for an editor.

From what I can tell, most of the "editing" that's done on self-published digital novels these days is proofreading, not editing.  (And frankly, some of the proofreading doesn't appear to be top-notch either.)

What an editor -- a good one, that is -- will do is spot the structural and composition errors and help the author turn the sow's ear of a rough draft into a final silk purse.  An editor looks at the whole package of the novel; the proofreader deals with the minute details of individual words and rarely looks at anything larger than a sentence.

A good proofreader can clean up a novel, even a messy one, in a day or two.  And when she's done, she's done.  Proofreading does not require the author to make any major changes to her work.  She in fact has asked the proofreader to fix mistakes, and that's it.  The proofreader's service is to correct errors; her job is not to make suggestions that the author has the option of following or not following.  Maybe she charges $100 or $300, but when she completes the task, she hands the manuscript -- or digital file -- back to the author and that's it.  Her job is done.

An editor's job is far more complex and if done properly, editing is process that involves both the author and the editor in at least some back-and-forth exchange involving creative issues of story-building and story-telling.  These issues may be as minor as changing the spelling of a character's name so it's more recognizable to the reader or as major as altering the ending.

Here's another example, again a very hypothetical passage from a hypothetical novel:

Jessikah stood in the cabin's doorway and looked around.  She saw a plain room with a fireplace and some furniture.  It was empty.

She closed the door.  She wondered if the roof leaked.  She was already wet from the storm.  She hadn't intended to walk all the way from town and hadn't expected rain.
An editor might suggest to the author, "I'm not sure readers are going to be able to skim over that spelling for the heroine's name.  It's going to stop them, make them think too long about how to mentally pronounce it."  Maybe there are reasons for the odd spelling, or maybe not.  And that can be an easy thing to fix if the author decides to take the editor's advice, either by changing the spelling or by providing an explanation so the reader can recognize and "hear" the name.

But looking at that scene, the editor may also say, "Give me more description of the cabin.  How big is it?  What kind of furniture?  Is it warm or cold?  Why do you say it's empty when you've just said it has some furniture?  Do you mean no one was there, or is the 'empty' a kind of comparative term?  Why not have Jessikah/Jessica wonder about the roof in her own thoughts rather than narration?"

Now again, this is a tiny passage, and this hypothetical editor is focusing in on a very small section.  But assuming the author agrees with her editor, maybe the author rewrites the passage:

Jessica stood in the cabin's doorway and took in every detail of her surroundings.  The small space seemed larger than it really was because a crude table just large enough for one person to dine and a narrow bed in the corner comprised the only furnishings.  Ashes lay black and cold in the fireplace.  The very air smelled of damp and emptiness and abandonment.

She closed the door behind her, shutting out the storm.  With a nervous glance upward, she whispered, "Please don't leak, roof."  The last thing she needed after the long, unexpected walk from town was more water falling on her already soaked clothing. 
Editing, then, is something the editor does and then the author has to respond to and act.  The editor's job isn't the end of the process, the way the proofreader's is.

Here's another hypothetical example of how an editor works:

By the time they had loaded everything in the wagons, Melody ached everywhere.  She couldn't remember when she had felt so completely exhausted.  Back in Boston she had worked hard, scrubbing floors and toting water for the laundry and waiting on the various old ladies who had hired her.  Like old Mrs. Cleeford who added the task of caring for her miserable old cat to Melody's chores.  Melody hadn't liked cats since then.
And the editor adds a note regarding the highlighted section:  "Is this really necessary?  Nothing else in the book references Melody not liking cats. . . . or Mrs. Cleeford."

So sometimes an editor suggests that something be removed from the book.  This may be due to length restrictions -- which is more a concern for print publication than digital -- or because it just doesn't add anything to what may be an already rambling narrative.

The original version of one of my published books included a lengthy scene in which the heroine has a particularly vivid nightmare that seems to foretell events that unfold later on in the novel.  I felt it was a very well written scene and it depicted some of this character's fears at being in a situation over which she had virtually no control and which offered a lot of threats to her safety.  The book's editor, however, said the scene was too long and really didn't add anything to the story.  I was very reluctant to include that scene in the cuts that had to be made to reach a publishable word count.  As I realized later, however, I could convey the character's fears and even her apprehension that something terrible will happen in a few lines of dialogue with other characters, and thus leave the actual development of events for dramatic, on-stage action rather than duplicate what had already been portrayed in the dream or, far worse, relegate the on-stage action to a brief "everything happened exactly as she had dreamt in her nightmare." 

I was asked a few days ago why I spend time reading and evaluating other people's books.  My answer was, of course, that if I hope to sell my books in an increasingly crowded digital marketplace, I need to know what my competition is.  And then I have to figure out ways to give myself and my books a competitive edge.

Do I believe that good writing, solid story-telling, and clean formatting are enough of an edge in the digital marketplace?  The truth is, no, I don't.  It wasn't enough in the days of print-only, and it certainly isn't enough now.  Twenty years ago, no one was defending and/or dismissing "published" books that were so filled with grammatical errors that they were virtually unreadable, mainly because "published" books weren't filled with grammatical errors.  Now we have authors, their friends, their husbands, their mothers, posting glowing reviews of books that independent reviewers assess as so poorly written that the books are difficult to read.  How can any author who doesn't have a huge fan base or a publisher's promotional apparatus even hope to compete with that, short of doing the same?

I don't  know for sure.  Yet.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Is a stolen picture worth a thousand stolen words? UPDATED

I am VERY pleased to report that the following situation is in the process of being rectified.  As you'll see in the comments below, author Jillian Eaton is correcting the photo credit for the cover of her book.  I thought about taking this whole post down, but decided to leave it as a reminder to ALL AUTHORS that the people who create our covers are artists, too, and deserve full credit for their contributions.  I'm also leaving it as an example of how gracious someone can be in admitting a mistake.  We all make them; the first step to fixing them is to admit it.

Thank you, Jillian.

This breaks my heart.

Please note the watermark at the bottom of this photo.  If you go there, you'll find that the photo is copyrighted by Konradbak.  A little bit of research will tell you Konrad Bak is a Polish photographer.  His pictures are available at Dreamstime, at Shutterstock, at iStock, at 123rf, and a bunch of other royalty-free stock photo sites.

Now look at this:

That pretty much gives you the information as to where this is from.  I don't think I need to add the link.

And if you "look inside" that Kindle edition, you'll find this:

"Cover art photography courtesy of Helena Beumer.  All rights reserved."

Well, at least it didn't say (c) Helena Beumer. . . . .

Photography is covered by copyright protections, too.  I know most writers don't want their words stolen, but shouldn't they be a little more respectful of their fellow artists?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Lost words

Sometimes the computer eats them.  Sometimes they're scribbled in a notebook or on a piece of scratch paper and then forgotten.  Sometimes they never exist outside my brain because when I go to write them down or type them out, they've vanished.  One time I had a computer disk stolen that had the only copy of two chapters of a novel.  The rest of it was carefully backed up, but not those two chapters.

Several years ago I attempted to transcribe all the little bits and pieces of half-started novels and put them in one file on the computer: NEW BOOK IDEAS.  Seriously, folks, you don't want to know how many folders are in that file.  Gazillions.  And there are a bunch of others that I never had time to transcribe.

One of my (many) problems is that I can come up with half a dozen titles at the drop of a hat, and then I want to write books to go with the titles.  Some of the folders in that digital file contain no more than a page or two of vague ideas, but I liked the title.

A couple of days ago I went looking for the original hard copy version of one of my published novels and discovered that it has disappeared. Even though I have two other hard copies as well as two other versions on disk, that original original original is . . . . gone.  So I have four versions plus the actual printed edition (which is slightly different even from those) but the original is lost, probably forever.  I wanted one scene from it to resurrect into a revised digital edition and now I'll have to live without it.

It doesn't pay to get too attached to our words. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

The words of a glorious tradition

There's a discussion going on at Smart Bitches Trashy Books about a canon for romance fiction.  Anything I'd write as a response would take up way too much space on their site, so here it is on my blog.

One of the very first pieces of writing that I ever had published was a brief article in "Authorship," the newsletter of the National Writer's Club, back in 1980 or so.  The title of my essay was "Whatever it is, it isn't trash," in which I pointed out that romance fiction, and in particular historical romance fiction, had a long and very honorable literary history.

My definition of "romance" at that time -- and pretty much through to today -- is a story that focuses on a relationship between lovers (gender and number non-specific) and how other events that the characters experience affect that relationship.  In some cases, the relationship does NOT end with happily ever after, but the ending is consistent with the story and does not compromise what the lovers have endured.

Charles Dickens wrote historical romance in A Tale of Two Cities.  Shakespeare wrote historical romances, meaning romances set in a time before his own.  Henry Fielding's Tom Jones is a romance; Tom's love for Sophia Western -- and hers for him -- drives many of the book's actions and complications.  Certainly Jane Austen wrote romances, and so did Charlotte Bronte.  Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights may not have had a happy ending, but it was a novel driven by a romantic relationship and the ending was consistent with characters.

Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo was probably the first adult romance novel I ever read, in a junior high illustrated version.  Edmond's love for Mercedes provides the motivation for all his many adventures.

Lorna Doone by R. D. Blackmore.  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Mark Twain's time traveling A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Cour features a romance, even if that isn't the main focus.

Bring the whole genre forward into the 20th century with Rafael Sabatini, Noel B. Gershon, Thomas B. Costain, Margaret Mitchell, Kathleen Winsor, Laverne Gay, Jan Westcott, Mary Stewart, Norah Lofts, Victoria Holt, Samuel Shellabarger, Frank Yerby, Gwen Bristow, Edison Marshall. 

One of the authors who wrote historical romance both before and after the Woodiwiss milestone is Roberta Gellis.  Knight's Honor was first published in 1964, reprinted in 1976 when the historical romance craze was taking solid hold.  She now writes fantasy.

I think it's important to understand, as Sarah and Jane in the Dear Bitches, Smart Authors podcast point out, that there are different purposes of a romance fiction "canon."  Certainly if one is looking for suggestions for reading material for someone who has not read romance before, there are a lot of other considerations.  Does the reader prefer contemporary or historical?  Reality-based or paranormal?  Sexy or sweet?  And these have pretty much been the basis for determining reading lists anyway.

But do you want to recommend the books you've liked, or the books you think the reader will like?  The books that are the best of the genre or the most typical?  The new or the classic?

Because all of that is a far cry from suggesting a list of the influential books of romance fiction.

As a writer of historicals, I was much more influenced by Dumas and Yerby and Shellabarger and Sabatini than I was by Margaret Mitchell.  Does that mean all writers of historical romance in the 1980s shared the same influences?  Of course not!  But the writers whose books were published in the 1970s and 1980s were writers who had grown up on the books of the previous generations, and in turn those books of the 70s and 80s would influence the new writers of the 90s and onward.

I don't know how many of the early writers of 1980s and 1990s paranormal romance were influenced by Elswyth Thane's Tryst,  or Thorne Smith's Topper (the movie or TV incarnations thereof) or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  The point is that there were influences, and many of them.  How much of the magic in today's paranormal romances derives from the authors' encounters with heroic epic fantasy of William Morris, E.R.R. Eddison, H. Rider Haggard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs?

So whether the purpose of this "canon" is to bring new readers to the genre or to explain the genre to its existing fans, that purpose will be reflected in the list itself.

Were there names missing from the podcast discussion?  Oh, my goodness, yes. 

Where was Janet Dailey?  Regardless how tragic a figure she became after the plagiarism was revealed, she did make an indelible mark on the genre as the first American writer to be published by Harlequin.  For a while she was writing a book every two weeks, but she went on to write historicals as well as contemporary category romance, and single title contemporaries as well.  Janet Dailey was "there" before Nora Roberts was.

Laurie McBain wrote one of the earliest (in terms of post-Woodiwiss) continuing series, with Moonstruck Madness (1977), Chance the Winds of Fortune (1980), and  Dark Before the Rising Sun (1982).  The first of Jude Deveraux's Velvet series wasn't published until 1981.  But again, were those authors building on the tradition of Elswyth Thane's Williamsburg series?  Or back to the Musketeer series of Dumas?  How much does the current trend such as Robin Carr's Virgin River series or J.D. Robb's "in death" series owe to the original serialization of novels in magazines?  Not to mention, of course, the chronicles of Angelique.

I think it's only fair to examine the romance novel of 2012 -- or of any other contemporary point -- in relation to the entire genre's history.  These novels do not spring up like mushrooms (and even mushrooms come from spores).  And I believe that understanding the traditions from which the current romance types emerge will not only establish the romance as an important art form but also as one that transcends gender restrictions.

There were other issues brought up in the podcast that I think justify further investigation:

Tracing hero archetypes.  And I'd add heroine archetypes. . . villain archetypes. . . . other woman archetypes.  (Hey, didn't you smart bitches ever read Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Estes, or Christopher Vogler?)

The hero pursuing the heroine as a new trope?  You need to read more, girls!

Another author barely mentioned if at all:  Jayne Ann Krentz.  Prolific in a variety of subgenres, she is one of the first of the post-Woodiwiss generation of romance writers to venture into futuristic romance in the 1980s. Was this in response to the popularity of the Star Wars and Superman movies?

It's not just other cultural artifacts that influence writers.  Krentz was also somewhat notorious in the 1980s for her references to the use of condoms in sex scenes.  Even though unplanned pregnancies had been a staple of romance at least since Woodiwiss, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s brought an awareness of the risks of unprotected sex.  What was radical and scandalous in 1989 barely rates a notice in 2012.

Angsty romances?  I think LaVyrle Spencer was a strong early author in this sub-genre, as well as for using more ordinary people as her protagonists instead of the wealthy and powerful and adventurous.  Her early books feature heroines who are caught in emotional dilemmas that could destroy the romantic relationship.  Candace Camp's superbly angsty The Rainbow Season was published the same year as Spencer's The Fulfillment.  Both books feature ordinary people as protagonists and heroines with conflicted emotional attachments.

The wide variety of types of romance is the reason I personally get so bent out of shape when "scholars" publish papers on what they think a romance novel is or does or says and their research is based on a sampling of 20 or 30 novels.  I consider that a gross insult.  They wouldn't be able to get away with it if the genre being studied were science fiction or pulp westerns or police procedurals. They'd be expected to examine and analyze not dozens but hundreds of representative novels; it's only with romance that they think they can get away with a couple dozen at most.  They're all alike, right?  WRONG.

Personally, I think of a "canon" more in terms of a collection of writings that not only exemplify the genre but that best promulgate the ideology of the genre.  Until there is established such an ideology, I think it's futile to try to assemble a definitive canon.

But that's just my opinion.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Words as numbers, and making words count.

I want to reiterate some of the issues that started this blog, and started my return to writing, because not everyone is going to read all the old stuff and because the old stuff is relevant to the new.

The three items that prompted it all were:
1.  The report of the Dorchester boycott listed at AAR.
2.  The article about Connie Brockway's adventures into self-publishing, also on AAR.
3.  The obituary of Walter Zacharius that a friend showed me from the New York Times.

It actually began maybe a year before, when the same friend who told me about Walter's death had told me about Kate Duffy's.  That kind of prompted me to slide back toward a writing hobby -- not yet a career, if it ever really was one -- that I had been seriously, seriously away from for at least five years.  But it wasn't until last spring that the ideas started to coalesce again and I began surfing the review sites and so on to see what was going on in the industry.

On reading the Brockway tale, I discovered that self-publishing, which had for so long been considered anathema for "professional" authors, now offered a legitimate means for authors to by-pass the parasitic publishers who often did more harm than good, to the individual authors, to the readers, and to the various genres as classes.  And so I began to pursue my own self-publishing ventures.

When the issue with Dorchester arose last week, I spent considerable time locating the warning letter I had written to RWA in 1993, unaware during my search that that letter also contained the cost analysis of a mass market paperback.  The two are, of course, inextricably linked.  I'm not sure that this issue was ever examined after that 1993 analysis was printed in PANdora's Box.  I do know that I followed up briefly.

In a letter I wrote to PANdora's Box sometime after the publication of the original analysis -- my file is not dated and I do not yet know for sure if it was ever sent -- I brought out additional financial facts about royalties:

If indeed the publisher makes a profit of even a modest 10% on the sale of each and every paperback romance novel sold, and the authors of those same novels are paid the slave-wage royalty of only six, perhaps a paltry four, and all too frequently an insulting mere two per cent royalty, what I failed to see was that I was still comparing apples to Nerf basketballs. For the publishers' profit of 10% is a net profit, whereas the royalty to the author is a gross (!) income.

From that income one must further deduct all the costs and expenses already deducted from the publishers' receipts. Their ten percent is what they have left after paying taxes and insurance, printers and shippers, advertisers and distributors. Authors, out of their pittances, still must come up with agents' commissions, taxes (including the full social security contribution), postage and copying, bookmarks and RT ads, conference fees and mileage to those book signings at which we sign two or three copies.

We also have no control over our "wages." If the publisher wishes to give away 1500 free copies of our book at a conference, they chalk it up to promotional expense and we get -- nothing. Fifteen hundred fans have now saved the cost of the book, money which they will probably spend on someone else's novel. They will also share that book (just as they share their others, including the ones from the used book stores) with two or three friends. Or, if they don't happen to like the type of book we've written, it goes immediately to the used book store. Unlike the baker who supplies bread for the grocery store, we can't tell the publisher, "Hey, wait, guys! I worked my ass off for that book! What gives you the right to give it away for free?"
Why does this all this matter?  Because we as writers matter.  We are human beings.  For many of us, writing is our livelihood.  For others writing is an obsession, and I don't mean that in a bad way.  But it also matters because readers matter.  Because publishers have traditionally been the means for getting written material from the author's pen or typewriter or computer into the hands of the reader. 

We who are living in the 21st century take our technology pretty much for granted, especially printing because the printing press has been around for over 500 years.  But it hasn't been all that long ago that a musician had to perform live for anyone to hear him.  We cannot watch Edmund Kean's theatrical performances, we cannot hear Paganini on the violin, but we can read the words written about them.

The recording of a theatrical or musical performance requires the coordinated effort of a lot of people: It begins with the script writer or playwright or composer, progresses to cast/performers, crew, set designers, camera operators, and finally the distribution medium, whether that is Lionsgate Films or YouTube.  Computer technology has progressed over the past few years that allows some diminution of the process, but it hasn't completely eliminated the need for a coordinated effort involving a lot of people.

Writing, on the other hand, has always been primarily a solitary endeavor and it's only the distribution process that has required the input of others.  The writer writes, and was more or less done with the project until it landed in the hands of the publisher, when all production activity took over.  The publisher did all the work, granted the writer a small cut of the revenue, and walked away with the majority of the profits.

What digital self-publishing has done, however, is to make the publisher redundant.  Publishers, obviously, don't like this, and some writers are reluctant to take on the additional responsibility that self-publishing puts on them.  But let's look at the numbers, so that we, as writers, can at least make an informed decision.

Looking at the figures I posted originally -- based on a 1993 cover price of $4.99 (rounded to $5 for ease of calculation) -- on a sale of 25,000 copies, the author earns $7,500 in royalties.

If the author digitally publishes that novel on Amazon Kindle at $2.99 -- that's a major discount from a 20-year-old price, let alone from a 2012 price of $7.99 or $9.99 or $12.99! -- at a 70% royalty rate she earns approximately $50,000.  I say approximately because there is a download cost associated with Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing program that's based on the size of the download file.  However, the comparison kind of makes you sick to your stomach, doesn't it?  Imagine paying for a little bit of online promotion out of that $50,000 compared to buying a print ad in Romantic Times  or having bookmarks make up to distribute at conferences?  How does $50,000 in royalties compare to $7,500?

Look at another financial scenario.  Even selling on Amazon for $.99 -- a 99-cent bargain for the reader -- and only 35% royalty, that 35-cent royalty per copy is still -- STILL -- higher than a 4% royalty on a $4.99 book, and lots higher than a 2% cut on foreign sales.

Financially, digital self-publishing is a no-brainer.  Added just to the raw numbers are the considerations that digital self-publishing can be done in a matter of days and payment usually arrives in 90 days or less after sales.  Traditional print publishing requires at least six months and often as much as 18 to 24 months before a print edition is released, and royalties are paid long after that.  While the "advance against royalties" may be paid sooner than that, it is increasingly industry standard that advances are paid in more chunks and not until the completed manuscript is delivered and approved.

There are, of course, non-financial considerations.  With a traditional publisher, along with that up-front advance, the author gets cover art (which she may or may not like), proofreading and editing services (which may or may not make the book any better), and status (like membership in a "professional" writers' organization).  Oh, yes, and the delight of actually autographing print copies.

But what if the publisher, whose primary concern is the bottom line, their profit and not yours, indulges in activities that hurt your bottom line?  Looking at those 1993 Leisure/BMI editions again, they carried a UPC bar code for a cover price of $4.99 -- or even $5.99, as on the copy I found buried in my stash last night -- but I don't know what they actually sold for.  Did they reach a discount place in Kansas, as Jaye Manus reported, to be sold for 99 cents?  How did the "cover price" affect what, if any, royalties were paid to the authors?  At least I know the "cover price" on my 27,780 copies of Touchstone was actually $1.00.

As I went through some of those old issues of PANdora's Box and read comments of published romance writers who lamented over and over the eagerness of new writers to accept any terms just so they could be published and who further lamented the acquiescence of RWA on the really shitty terms and shabby treatment offered to new writers, I was quite literally moved to tears.  It's been almost 20 years since we tried to get that stopped.  By "we" I mean those of us who advocated for a stronger, more professional RWA: Margaret Brownley, Jaye Manus, Susan Wiggs, Betty Duran, among so many others whose complaints were voiced only by "Name Withheld."

I refuse to withhold my name any longer.

Old words, old pathways, old destinations

The search for the evidence that RWA had been apprised of Dorchester's shenanigans (a good word on this St. Patrick's Day) took me through some dark and shadowed avenues of my earlier writing career.  I may detail some of the other half-forgotten items I discovered, but not yet.  Some of the re-opened wounds are still too painful.

My intention, however, through all the things that happened and that I myself did, was always to honor my chosen genre and its writers as well as promote the welfare of ALL writers and defend them against the depredations of the publishers. ALL publishers.

I know now that I first notified RWA about Dorchester/Leisure/BMI almost 20 years ago.  What, if anything, was done in the five years between then and when I left RWA in 1998, I don't know.  I haven't been able to find anything.  I know that very little was done to bring Kensington/Zebra to heel when they were behind on royalty payments and had royalty rates below industry standard. 

(One of the items I found in my search was a royalty statement of my own from Kensington that shows a sale of rights to Russia, but I'm not sure yet I was ever paid for it; I need to find the time to look it over more closely.  I've also discovered that there was apparently another printing by Kensington of another of the three books I worte for them, but it doesn't show up on any of the royalty statements.  Again, I need more time to research it.)

But my point here is that from the very beginning, RWA was in a position simply due to the overwhelming size of its membership -- 8,000 or so in 1993; now over 10,000 -- to do something about Dorchester/Leisure, and it doesn't look like they did.  Too many unpublished RWA members saw Leisure, regardless its royalty rates, regardless its crappy contracts, regardless anything, as a viable avenue for publication, and publication was the brass ring that could not be moved any further away or made any harder to grasp.  And the unpublished majority ruled.

I went over to the RWA website the other day to verify whether certain subdivisions of the organization still existed.  PASIC is still there, the Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter, shown as founded in 1995.  No, my friends, PASIC was not founded in 1995.  It was founded on the evening of 13 October 1994, when the following was posted on the GEnie network's Romance Writer's Exchange Roundtable discussion board, where a number of authors had been discussing their desire to have an RWA conference for the published authors only, without the crush and bother of the unpublished:

Sent on 10/13/94 at 8:53p
This may be a long post, and I really have difficult work I should be doing but . . . . . . . . .

I *think* there may be a way to have a PAN conference.  Now, I could be way out in left field and this idea just came to me and I haven't explored it very much, so I'm just throwing this out for discussion.

WHAT IF we formed an RWA chapter, just like any other chapter, only the bylaws of the chapter restricted membership in that chapter to published authors?  Then we could have a chapter conference just for published authors, couldn't we?  And we could have it anywhere we wanted, because if RWA is inc.'ed in TX but has a converence in NY or HI, why not a chapter in CA having a conference in IL or MT or wherever it damn well -- ooops, sorry -- darn well pleased?

As I understand it, there is at least one chatper that does have some kind of restrictions on membership, so hey, why not explore this angle?  A chapter can have conferences, put out a newsletter, charge dues, give awards, have meetings, etc., etc., and be under the RWA umbrella for taxes unless and until it wants to go out on its own.  Other chapters have done that, too.

Linda, scared to death and holding her breath, Hilton

Friday, March 16, 2012

Words as evidence -- I found the letter

(Note:  I have removed addresses and phone numbers, even though I've moved, and fixed the paragraph formatting for ease of reading, but nothing else.  If there are typos, they remain from the original.  The body of the letter regarding the cost accounting for book profits was published almost as-is in PANdora's Box.  I've included the original here, without any changes that were made for publication.)

Linda Hilton
P.O. Box
Buckeye, AZ 85326
20 July 1993
Margaret Brownley
PAN Liaison

Dear Margaret:

I'm sorry I didn't get these off to you last week as planned. My schedule from now until St. Louis is going from frenzy to chaos.

However, here are the copies of the covers and some inside material from the two Leisure books my friend Kim picked up from Book Margins, Inc.

As you can see Gloria Pedersen's Nighthawk's Embrace has no logo or publisher's name at all on the cover. On the inside, however, the title page and copyright page say "Leisure Books." If this were an unsold "remaindered" copy, it would have the Leisure logo -- and the price would not have gone up to a very current $4.99. As recently as 1991, Leisure was still selling books for $3.95, and this one is from 1987.

The Golden Threshold which is copyrighted by Leisure rather than the author, clearly has a "BMI" logo by the price on the cover and on the spine. The title page lacks any publisher information, but the copyright page reads "Published by special arrangement with Leisure Books." The BMI version doesn't have the gold foil embossing for the title on the cover, and the ISBN is different from the original. The new one from BMI only has a publisher's ID number, 83148, the same as on the other Leisure book. Leisure's ID, by the way, is 08439. And again, the price is $4.99, up from the original. Also, the original edition included four or five pages of advertising material for other Leisure titles; this material has been cut from the BMI edition

I called BMI last Friday after talking with you. "Stan" had already left for the week-end, but I was told he would call me probably Wednesday. Naturally, I'm going to be gone all day tomorrow, but my son is capable of taking messages, and there is always the machine...

After you and I talked Friday about the home subscription situation, I received something interesting in yesterday's mail: my entry in the Harlequin $1,000,000 Sweepstakes! According to the outside envelope, I'm guaranteed a cash prize. The inner material, of course, reveals that this cash prize can be as low as 50 cents.... Still, one wonders how Harlequin can expect authors to accept 2% royalties on a marketing venture that supposedly loses money -- in order to give some reader a million bucks! And 50 cents is more than Harlequin pays its authors, even at 6% royalty!

What many authors may not know is that some of the financial figures on home subscription sales are readily available, and they do not bear out the publishers' complaints and justifications. I know you said you had some figures, but I thought I'd take this opportunity to give you what I compiled about two years ago, to see how they compare.

The typical retailer gets approximately a 40% discount on paperbacks, sometimes a bit more. The wholesaler from whom the retailer buys gets another 5% to 10%, so let's split that to take into consideration the higher volume discounts some retailers get and say that the total discount (wholesale and retail) is 47%. If the author receives the standard 6% (though many only get 4%), this leaves the publisher with 47% of the retail price to cover his costs and make a profit. (In some cases, the publisher may also have a distributor, as Zebra does with Penguin, but the percentage there is almost negligible, so we'll just lump it in with everything else.)

Zebra currently offers its Lovegram subscribers approximately a 17% discount; Harlequin offers Intrigue subscribers a bit more than 13%. If we add 25% for shipping, handling, bookkeeping, etc. (a rough estimate and probably high), the net to the publisher after the standard 6% royalty becomes 52% to Zebra, 56% to Harlequin, higher than the net on normal retail sales. If the bad debt level is so high that they can't afford even 4% to the author, then perhaps the whole idea of subscription sales should be done away with.

Then perhaps again, the proposition is more lucrative than the publishers would like us to believe. Perhaps, since these things are frequently distributed through the U.S. Postal Service, audits of the publishers would reveal just exactly how many subscribers there really are -- and how many of them are deadbeats.

The real point, however, is that publishers apparently expect us to believe that they lose money on this mail-order scam and therefore we have to help them cut their losses by accepting lower payment because they choose to sell our books at a loss. I for one do not think any of this is true.
Here's a quick lesson in cost accounting: As in any other business, advertising expenses and bad debts are figured right along with material and labor and other overhead into the cost of manufacturing the product. This total cost is then used to establish a selling price. Publishers are no different from steel mills or lingerie factories in this regard. They cover all their costs first, add a profit, and come up with a selling price. Cutting our royalties does not cover costs; it increases profits.

Another "business" lesson: Many retailers, especially grocery stores, feature loss leaders in their advertising. A staple product, such as bread or milk, is promoted at a selling price well below what the store pays for it from the dairy or bakery. The dairy or bakery may give them a volume discount, but they do not absorb the grocery store's loss on the item. The attractive price, however, is used as a lure to bring consumers into the store so they'll buy other things on which the profit margin is higher. Why do you think bread and milk are inevitably in the back of the store and as far apart from each other as possible? People have to pass a lot of other merchandise on the way to the bread and milk!

A third lesson: I have some numbers on the cost of publishing a paperback, partially based on figures taken without apologies from agent Natasha Kern's posts on Prodigy.

Using Ms. Kern's percentages, I've extrapolated the costs for a typical single-title mass market paperback, retailing for $4.99.

Cover price: 5.00
Retail discounts @ 45% 2.25
Printing cost 0.85*
Typeset/design 0.25*
Overhead 0.70*
Royalty (6%) 0.30 4.35
Total net to publisher 0.65

The * items are based on the figures Ms. Kern gave for a 5,000 print run of a $22.00 hardcover. If you bump that print-run figure up to 50,000 (which is probably minimum romance paperback from what I can guess and I'm sure there are people somewhere out here who have better numbers than I), then the Typeset/design and Overhead figures get cut to 0.025 and 0.07 respectively, and the publisher's cut jumps from 65 cents per book to $1.505 per book! This, of course, is based on a 100% sell-through, but when you consider the number of romance novels that sell more than 50,000 copies and the fact that even the above listed $.65 (at 5,000) is twice what the author makes, something is fishy!

Here's another way to look at the same numbers, only this time we'll take into consideration a 50% sell-through on a 50,000 copy print-run:
Printing cost @ .85 42,500
Typeset/design 5,000
Overhead 3,500
Total cost 51,000

Revenue @ 50% sold:

25,000 @ 55% net (2.75) 68,750
Less royalty @ 6% 7,500
Less total cost 51,000
The important thing to consider in this scenario is that only 25,000 books were sold, leaving another 25,000 in a warehouse somewhere. However, these unsold books are fully paid for, because the cost for all 50,000 has been deducted from the revenue on sales on only 25,000. The publisher can sell these leftover 25,000 copies at $1.00 each to some discount broker -- like Book Margins, Inc., if BMI were legitimate -- and make another $25,000 profit. Because most authors' contracts allow the publisher to renege on royalties if the books are sold below "cost," the publisher can produce figures showing that the books cost $.95 to produce (based on the figures in the first example) and the author gets NOTHING while the publisher pockets a cool $25,000.
Clever bastards, ain't they?
The bottom line (and as you yourself have said, it is always the bottom line) is that the publishers are not entering into this home subscription venture without assurances of a profit. We don't need to accept
their excuses.

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to call -- anytime. I'm usually awake by seven in the morning and rarely get to bed before midnight. I know timing is tight between now and next week with the conference, but I have no real schedule, so you won't be interrupting anything except general chaos!

Feel free!

I am eagerly awaiting this conference. I think it is going to be one we will remember for a long time to come. In fact, I have a feeling RWA may emerge much changed as a result. I'm glad I'll be there.

What happened to these words?

I don't know when I got hooked on using "words" in the titles of my blog posts, but there you have it.

Most of the focus the past few days has been on my dealings with Dorchester and the warnings I sounded and so on, but as I've mentioned a couple times, Dorchester wasn't the only publisher engaged in these low-royalty bulk sales.  Supposedly Kensington/Zebra was involved in some, possibly -- per a Jaye Manus post over at passive voice -- with a company named Centurion.  I vaguely recall seeing some books with a Centurion imprint, but the memory isn't clear enough for me to state anything as a fact.

And the business with Harlequin distributing "free" copies that the authors got no royalties at all on was addressed years -- decades -- ago by RWA but it still goes on.

It's easy, therefore, to lay the blame on a financially troubled and ethically challenged publisher like Dorchester or Zebra, or on the greedy, monopolistic tentacular monstrosity that is Harlequin, and then to say "reputable" publishers wouldn't behave like that.  And I use the term "reputable" intentionally, because that's the term Dorchester themselves used in qualifying the class of potential buyers for their inventory of contracts and rights.

There are few publishers in the paperback field as "reputable" as Pocket Books.  They're well established, they pay higher royalty rates, they're part of a huge media conglomerate.

Here are two covers of my 1996 Pocket historical romance, Touchstone:
Though the embossing of the author's name and title don't show up very well in this scan, the original is on the right, with the familiar kangaroo logo to identify this as a Pocket imprint.  The other has no logo and is not embossed.

Here are the back covers:

Again, the original is on the right, with the ISBN and UPC barcode, the price indicated as $5.99 with the Canadian price also.  The edition on the left has only a UPC price code, and the price indicated is $1.00.

The copyright page of the original indicates this is a "First Pocket Books printing" of March 1996.  The little numbers below, standard in the industry, go all the way down to 1 which also designates this as a first printing.

This is the copyright page from the 2004 reprint, which is clearly identified as being done in September 2004.  Though it isn't specifically identified as a first printing, the numbers below were not changed, thus allowing ignorant or unscrupulous booksellers to list it as a first edition, even though the copyright date remains 1996.

Can someone tell me how this is any different at all from what Dorchester and BMI did?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Wait a minute! Who wrote those words?

Given all the discussions relating to the business and financial aspects of writing, it's not surprising that writers are urged to adopt a more business-like attitude toward publishing.  What this usually means, of course, is they need to learn the legalese that comprises their contracts so they can avoid literary slavery.  That's all well and good, but understanding the fine print gobbledygook and being able to do anything about it are two different things.

For instance, if your standard contract with a standard publisher says your royalty rate is 2% of the publisher's net on special bulk sales, understanding it isn't all that difficult.  But how much you wanta bet that when you tell the acquiring editor you don't like those terms and you don't want any of those special sales made of your book, the acquiring editor is gonna tell you, "Honey, sign it, 'cause if you don't, I got twenty more who will."

As I've documented previously, publishers routinely tell the authors that whatever format pays the low royalty rate, whether it's mail-order subscription sales or digital backlist, the reason is the higher cost and lower profit.  I've already shown that as recently as 2004, Pocket Books was able to print, bind, and ship 27,780 copies of Touchstone for ~47 cents each.  I mean, that's not difficult to figure out, because they put it right on the royalty statement.

The problem is that authors aren't cost accountants, and it's easy for the publishers to pull out the numbers and convince the authors that money is lost on bulk sales that cost more but sell for less and therefore authors don't get as big a cut.

Imagine my shock this evening then, reading through more of those old PANdora's Box newsletters, to come across an article from September 1993 titled "Question: Do book clubs screw authors?" written by/attributed to A Romantic Bean Counter.  A quick skim of the page told me it was a cost analysis of a hypothetical mass market paperback print run, and I thought, "See, someone in RWA knew about this way back when. . . ." and then of course I realized I was that Romantic Bean Counter

I actually do have a degree in accounting and cost accounting was my specialty.

The figures I used for the Box article were nothing new or surprising, and in a day or two I'll transcribe the whole article for everyone's benefit.  Even though today's trend into digital publishing can make these numbers for ink and paper somewhat irrelevant, I believe skewing the numbers in favor of the publishers is par for the course.

Ah, but there was one other little gem tucked into this article which has helped me on part of my other quest.

The cost analysis is based on a print run of 50,000 copies and a 50% sell-thru that leaves the publisher with 25,000 unsold copies in a warehouse somewhere.  All of the publisher's costs were completely recouped from the sale of 25,000 copies with a profit of ~$10,000.  However. . . .
The publisher can sell those leftover 25,000 copies at $1 each to some discount broker -- like Book Margins, Inc, if BMI were legitimate -- and make another $25,000 profit.  [emphasis in the original]
This was published in PANdora's Box in September 1993.  I'm sure I wrote it at least a month earlier.  BMI -- the phantom distributor for Dorchester/Leisure -- was known about in RWA circles at least as early as summer 1993, which would have been the St. Louis conference Jaye Manus referenced here.

Words in fading echoes

How will I ever find time for my day job?

The whole Dorchester thing sent me into my archives yesterday, but I didn't immediately find what I was looking for, so this morning I hauled out the big fat three-ring binder with all my PANdora's Box newsletters.

History, because I was there:  The Published Authors' Network of RWA was born at a Sunday morning meeting at the 1989 National Conference in Boston.  Because of the RWA bureaucracy, the actual development of PAN into a working "network" took some time, so Volume 1 Number 1 of the PAN newsletter, aka The Box, wasn't published until almost three years later, in April 1992.  As I read through it almost exactly 20 years later I am amazed and horrified at how many issues that were raised in those early editions are still on the table, still unresolved, still causing grief for writers TWO DECADES LATER.

I attended the 1992 National Conference in Chicago that summer, about which Margaret Brownley wrote in the PANdora's Extra post-conference edition, "I was absolutely overwhelmed by PAN's reception in Chicago.  Whenever I felt my body or spirit lag (from lack of sleep), someone choose[sic] that particular moment to say something wonderful about PANdora's Box or PAN.  I honestly felt I could have flown home without a plane (and given the delay of my flight, I would probably have made better time)."

PAN was so desperately needed and so enthusiastically welcomed and supported by (most of) the published authors in RWA, myself included.  Margaret should not have been surprised.

But in that same conference extra edition of The Box, on page 3, were some questions and answers from PAN workshops at the Chicago conference, and one of them caught my eye this morning as I began to stroll through the files, because at some time or other (probably around 2000 when I was writing my honors thesis on romance fiction) I had highlighted this particular question:

What clauses should a writer be especially wary of in a contract?

The agents on our panel advised writers to watch out for the option clause.  Make sure it is as unconfining as possible.  Also, pay strict attention to the amount of money held against reserves.  Make sure you understand how much money will be held and for how long.

Another potential trap is the clause that requires you to return your advance should the publisher reject the finished product.  Richard Curtis stated that should a publisher reject a finished manuscript, the advance should be considered a loss, not a loan to be repaid.
Nothing about royalties on "special sales" or book clubs, even though other issues related to subscription sales and the resultant low royalty rates were brought up in almost every edition of The Box.  Nothing about reversion of rights, even though that had been specifically discussed in a PAN meeting with Harlequin and reported on in that same conference extra edition.  Nothing about sales of subsidiary rights, especially electronic rights, even though by 1992 online communities were already developing and contracts had been written with hints of electronic rights as early as my 1984 contract with Dorchester.

And on the back page of The Box was this:

PAN Panel first of its kind

Five organizations were represented on the panel of professional writing groups.  Participants included Bill Fawcett, Science Fiction Writers of America; Virginia McCullough, National Writers Union; Carla Neggers, Novelists Inc.; Mark Zubro, Sisters in Crime; Linda Cajio, Romance Writers of America.

A lot of fascinating information was exchanged during this one hour panel.  Our only wish is that we had allowed more time.

Many of the problems facing RWA are of universal concern to all writers.  All agreed that royalty statments are a mess.  "Math errors are one of the biggest problems.  Bantam's bookkeeping is abysmal, Baen Books the most comprehensive."

The return/reserve policy is of major concern. Avon's policy of doubling the reserves against sell-throughs on the next book was mentioned.  "The better an author does, the higher the reserves."  (PAN is checking this out.)

Most writers' groups support random audits.  Four years ago, SFWA conducted a mass audit of Simon and Schuster for 200 authors.

SFWA sees audits as preventative medicine.  But it also has had great success in conducting campagns against unfair practices by naming names in their newsletter. (SFWA seemed by far, to be the most fearless and perhaps most successful of the groups in getting changes.  Maybe there's a lesson to be learned here.)

All in all, a fascinating discussion. Be watching for more panels of this nature in the future.
By October 1992, the issue of book club royalties was addressed, again, and The Box reported pretty much what I wrote in yesterday's blog: 

The cut-rate royalty paid to Harlequin and Silhouette authors on book club sales was among issues RWA representatives discussed with the publishers at a special meeting during the Chicago conference. The publishers maintained that they paid a lower royalty on book club sales because they aren't making any money on such sales.

It's more expensive to sell a book through mail order than through retailers, publishers said.  They also said mail order customers who don't pay their bills eat into the money the publishers should be making on book club sales.

But they continue to sell books through the mail.  One reason is that the publishers believe many readers cancel their subscriptions to the book clubs and continue to buy the books in stores.
I can't easily research the past 14 years of RWA history and what, if anything, the romance writer's professional organization has done in the way of advocacy for the rights and benefits of the writer or how much RWA has protected the privileges of the publishers, the agents, and yes, the unpublished writers who still make up the vast majority of RWA membership.  But to judge by what's going on with romance writing, with royalties on digital editions and reversion of rights and all the rest, RWA has been an epic fail.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The words were said but no one heard them

As this whole thing with Dorchester continues to unfold/unravel, the issue with what RWA could or couldn't have done to better protect the writers has come up.  DISCLAIMER:  I'm no longer a member of RWA and was never on the board of RWA so I can't speak for RWA on this or any other issue.

What I can do, however, is document what I personally did when confronted with some of what I call shenanigans by publishers.

I'm not sure exactly when I discovered the reissued copies of the Leisure imprints.  My records of my RWA correspondence are filed away and not as easily accessible as the books themselves and it's going to take me a few days to locate everything and sift through it.  I thought I may have see the first BMI books as early as 1991 but in fact it may have been as much as a couple years later than that.

To give some background:  There had been a lot of grumbling in RWA for a number of years about the low royalties paid on subscription or "book club" sales, particularly with Harlequin/Silhouette but also with Dorchester/Leisure and Kensington/Zebra.  Readers signed up for these subscriptions usually through cards bound into the books; after receiving a bundle of "free" books, the reader then received a set number of releases each month at a discount.  For Harlequin/Silhouette, the reader subscribed by line (Silhouette Desire, Harlequin Intrigue, etc.).  I'm not sure how the Zebra and Leisure subscriptions worked, but the premise was basically the same. 

While the basic royalty rate on the author's contract might be 8% or 6% or 4% of the retail cover price, the royalty rate on book club sales could drop significantly.  In some cases, the rate dropped to 1% or less, and of course this was all in the contract language for anyone who really cared to find it and wasn't blinded by the glamour of Being Published. 

Even though the subscription sales were recognized as a "cash cow" in the publishing industry, representatives from the publishers routinely showed up at RWA events to "explain" why they couldn't pay higher royalties on subscription sales.  Usually the explanation included something about the high cost of advertising for the clubs which included the initial free books and the high rate of non-payment on the part of the subscribers.  No matter how often RWA members asked, "Then if you're losing so much money on the subscription deals, why do you keep doing it?" there was never an answer that made any sense.  They wouldn't come right and tell us "We're making money hand over fist on these things but we don't want to give any of it to you," even though many of us suspected that was the case.

When I first noticed the repackaged Leisure titles, I wasn't sure what to make of them.

On the left is the original Dorchester/Leisure edition with the title embossed and foiled, the old cursive L logo.  On the right is the BMI edition, with no embossing, no foil.

On the left is the Leisure back cover, with the complete ISBN bar code and a retail price of $3.95; on the right is the BMI edition, with no ISBN and just a UPC bar code with a $4.99 retail price.

The Leisure edition shows a copyright date of 1981 but lists Dorchester Publishing as the copyright holder, not Harriette de Jarnette.

The BMI edition is clearly identified as such, with the same 1981 copyright date and no indication when it was actually printed.  I can only determine by comparing cover prices that this BMI edition is from the early 1990s.

These are the front and back of another example from my personal collection which appears to be some kind of reprint, at least to judge by the UPC bar code without ISBN.  The copyright page shows a date of 1987 and Gloria Pedersen is listed as holding the copyright.

I was able to find this image on the web of what appears to be an embossed, foiled cover with the Leisure cursive L logo.

And this one from Paperback Swap is clearly a BMI reprint.

I took the information I had -- which was the two editions of Golden Threshold and the Pedersen reprint -- and gave it to RWA, probably via Margaret Brownley who was the PAN Liaison in the early 1990s.  I'm not sure of the exact date on these reprints, but the copyrights are not indicative.  What Margaret and various minions at RWA were able to determine was that BMI most likely contracted with Leisure for a special sale at a deep discount, then offloaded the copies to discount retailers like today's dollar stores.  Somewhere in my files I have a copy of a note from Margaret to that effect, but I haven't been able to find it yet, and there remains a possibility that I may not find it.  Remember, I gave up writing in the late 90s and I may actually have discarded something!  (I know, it's hard to believe, but I do occasionally throw things out.)

What Margaret's research also revealed, however, was that Leisure/Dorchester was probably operating well within the terms of their contract with the authors.  Golden Threshold may have been purchased outright; Dorchester was going through severe financial difficulties in the early 1980s, which is when that book was published, so it may have been a work for hire or they may have just bought it outright.  The important point was, however, that Dorchester/Leisure had done nothing obviously wrong, absent contract terms to the contrary.   As with other standard contracts with the same terms, the publisher did not have to notify the author of the deal, certainly did not have to get their permission, and the royalty rates were set by the contract.

Like the book club sales that Harlequin was paying obscenely low royalty rates on, these "special sales" transacted by Leisure generated very very low returns for the authors.  Depending on the contract terms, it was possible that the author earned nothing at all; the royalty might be based on the publisher's net of cost, and if all they got back was the cost of printing, there was no net profit and therefore no royalty.

About this same time -- early to mid 1990s -- Kensington/Zebra was packaging books for Sam's Club or whatever the big box discount stores were called then.  A cello-wrapped collection of four Zebra Heartfires was available at a huge discount, maybe 50% off the cover price.  Again, I had notes on this, because at least one of the titles I saw was by Janis Reams Hudson, who was either VP or President of RWA and I contacted her directly.  As far as I could tell at the time, these copies were not reprints but carried all the pertinent Zebra logos.  Also as far as I can tell, I don't have any copies in my personal collection that indicate anything different, such as a non-ISBN bar code.

And again, it all came down to contract terms -- these deep discount sales were quite legal and carried very low royalty rates.

All of this was openly discussed in RWA, through email and other online discussions, and at conferences.  As soon as I have time, I will go back through all my old PANdora's Box issues and see if there was something in those.  The point is, however, RWA knew all along this was going on and they said virtually nothing.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post the contract I signed with Pocket Books in 1994 contained the same kind of language, which is what enabled Pocket to reissue 27,780 copies of Touchstone  in 2004 with a cover price of $1.00, sell them for 50 cents each, and pay me a royalty of 2 1/4 cents per copy.  Never mind that my stated royalty rate was 8% of cover -- on a deep discount special sale, the rate was based on what the publisher got.  Understand, then, that in 2004, Pocket/Simon & Schuster was able to make a profit selling the books at 50 cents each.  Their cost was less than 50 cents a copy. 

And I don't think Simon & Schuster is in anything close to Dorchester's current financial straits.  Do I have any idea who bought those 27, 780 copies of Touchstone?  No, I don't,  I do know that I have one copy, which like the BMI editions of the Leisure titles has no ISBN and the UPC barcode shows a retail price of $1.00.

My day job is demanding my attention, but I will put up scans of the two different editions of Touchstone tomorrow.

What lies behind the words?

Following is the entire text of the email I received this morning from Dorchester Publishing:

Ms. Hilton,

The Garfunkel, Wild, Travis Law firm and OEM Capital Corp. forwarded me your letter of reversion dated March 10, 2012. I’ve noted your request for the rights to your title. Per our protocol, once we receive your request it enters the reversion review process, as reversions are not a unilateral decision. Dorchester is currently in negotiations of a sale. I've attached an announcement from our C.E.O. about new developments in the company. When I spoke to the agency brokering the sale of Dorchester, I was informed that there are quality companies bidding for Dorchester, and once they close that deal there will be an auction held 3 weeks after that. After the auction, the buyer has 30 days to speak and negotiate with authors before closing. The new buyers will negotiate directly with the author and agent about arrears. Any author that still wants to revert, can, at that time. I'll keep you posted with any more updates I receive.


Samantha Hazell
Contract & Rights Assistant
Production Assistant
Dorchester Publishing
105 East 34th Street, Box 175
New York, NY 10016

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Putting a price on the words

There are writers who write for themselves and no one  else.  I have always been an advocate of writing as a hobby.  There is no shame in being a hobbyist painter or sculptor or composer or actor or architect.  Who among us hasn't fulfilled a fantasy operatic career in the shower?  Everyone has a poem or two in their murky past, scribbled in the back of a library book or on a page torn out of a spiral notebook. 

Whose refrigerator hasn't been at one time or another been adorned with the artwork of juvenile Titians or Picassos? 

But there is a big difference, I think, between writing solely for oneself and writing for anyone, anyone else at all.  Once the writer tells someone else that she is writing -- or has written -- there's a sharing of writing as a concept even if not as a specific work.  The implied invitation has been extended to "Ask me what I've written; ask me about it," and thus the writing is no longer solely for the writer.

At that point, of course, the old adage about writing and/or sex comes into play:  First you do it for fun, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for the money.  Except that with writing -- and maybe with sex, too -- the dividing line between doing it for fun and doing it for money becomes very blurred.

There are a bunch of items in the current writing blogosphere that illustrate this. 

One is the on-going and multi-faceted discussion regarding 50 Shades of Grey and its sequels:  Is it fan fiction or not?  Is it plagiarized or not?  Is it ethical for an author of admitted fan fiction to then publish it for profit?

Another is the on-going issue regarding so-called Agency pricing of e-books from the Big 5 publishers:  Who benefits?  Authors?  Readers?  Publishers?  E-distributors?

Third is the dissolution-in-progress of Dorchester Publishing, in which a whole bunch of money is owed to authors, distributors, maybe even printers, and in which the major asset remaining in Dorchester's inventory is the contracts it holds for the books it's not paying royalties on.

Obviously, it's the third item that affects me personally, so I'll address the first two first.

I haven't read 50 Shades of Grey and I'm not likely to.  Nor have I read any of the Twilight books or seen the television series.  It's not my thing.  But the issue of creativity and ownership of artistic expression is one that impacts virtually every author.  If there is no protection of copyright for authors of original fiction, there is no way for authors -- or those greedy bastards the publishers -- to make money.  Even so, I think what bothers me personally more than anything is the way the popularity of SoG and the controversey over its roots in fan fic is overshadowing any potential discussion about romance and feminism, a discussion that is long overdue.

The accusations of price fixing on the Big Five conglomerate publishers as well as Apple also have far reaching potential implications for writers.  Because the charges have been leveled by the US Department of Justice, rather than by an individual or group of individuals who have been harmed by the practice, I would guess -- because I'm not a lawyer -- that no damages will be forthcoming to the writers and/or the readers.  And should the P&A (Publishers and Apple) be found guilty, and fines that are imposed would only be passed along one way or another in the form of higher prices to the readers, and probably through whatever means the publishers can come up with to diminish payment of royalties to the authors.  Ultimately, of course, the P&A will not be harmed financially.

To me, this is just another indication of why authors need to find ways to publish without publishers.  The publishers will always find a way to insulate themselves from any harm, and that means getting either the readers or the writers to pay for it.

Which of course brings me back to Dorchester.

Agent Kristin Nelson on her blog PubRants posts the letter she received from Dorchester announcing the latest changes to their operation.  Having divested themselves (and just who "they" are is another question) of Dorchester Media LLC, Dorchester Publishing is now ensconced in new digs at 105 E. 34th Street, Box 175, New York NY 10016.   Box 175???

Yeah, Box 175 at the UPS Store at 105 E. 34th Street.  Seriously.  Dorchester Publishing, aka Leisure Books, is now, according to the letter from their president, a "virtual" publisher operating out of a mailbox at the UPS Store.

What does this mean for the people to whom Dorchester owes money?  Does it mean the sale of Dorchester Media, to a mysterious entity hiding behind the name "FAA Investors LLC," provided funds to pay owner John Backe for his "loan" to Dorchester?  Let's put him aside -- I always get suspicious about people who lend money to themselves -- and look at the rest of the Dorchester financial picture.

We know they owe back royalties to authors.  How much?  Who knows?  Is RWA doing an audit?  Is SFWA doing an audit?  Is NINC doing an audit?  Has any author demanded an audit per terms of their contract?

How much does Dorchester owe to printers, to cover artists, to distributors?  How much do they owe in back rent?  What is the total financial picture of Dorchester Publishing Co., Inc?

If they're operating as a "virtual" publisher, with staff -- what staff? -- working from home, there are no physical assets beyond maybe a few computers, printers, and maybe a copier or two.  The only asset they have is the accumulated inventory of book contracts, the ones they haven't either reverted the rights to the authors or sold off to other publishers.  If they've already sold off the big names -- for which, one presumes, they got some big bucks -- what's left?  And who would buy those contracts?

And what baggage would come with those purchases?  Would the acquiring publisher be on the hook for any royalties still in arrears?  Would the sale of those assets then allow Dorchester Publishing to file for bankruptcy and clear the books of its debts, or would the court be able to clawback those sales the way they would in a personal bankruptcy?

We know John Backe is filthy rich and could personally probably pay off the debts of the company he owns.  The employees -- editors, bookkeepers, sales people, etc. -- apparently have been paid for at least most of the time they've been on the Dorchester payroll, which is more than a lot of the authors can say.

Dorchester still holds a contract on one of my books, and I've sent them a letter via certified mail demanding reversion of the rights in that contract.  They can, of course, refuse to revert the rights but unless they do something to make the book available to readers, even something as slimy as what Pocket Books did to me, the rights revert.  And I can tell you this, right now:  If Dorchester does not revert the rights to me, if they go ahead and make the book "available" in any form whatsoever, they or their licensee WILL pay me for it, or I will sue them.  That book earned out its pathetic advance more than 20 years ago.  And if my threat of a lawsuit pushes them into bankruptcy, so be it.  Then I will get my rights back.

Because the price on the words is my price, the price I set, and the price is ownership.

Where are the words going?

Well, the Dorchester words are going to the UPS Store.

Per PubRants and Agent Kristen Nelson Dorchester Publishing's new address is 105 East 34th Street, NYC.

That address belongs to the UPS Store.

Monday, March 12, 2012

There are no bad words and I'm going to read them

Stolen with affection from the late George Carlin:  There are no bad words, only bad thoughts.

And paraphrased to:  There are no bad stories, only badly written stories.

I've already written here that I'm not going to include book reviews per se -- this blog is about my personal writing journey, and while that journey may include side trips into the writing of other authors, it's still my journey.  But as I've also already written about what I perceive as the bad writing that's out there, I thought I'd explore that a little more, and for a specific reason.

After reading several other blogs here and here about and/or containing negative reviews of books, I began thinking about my own attitude toward books that, well, that don't work for me.

Am I too harsh?  Do I expect too much? 

When I wrote  my analysis of self-pubbed e-books and their review history on Amazon, I did not remember that I had in fact already downloaded one of the books.  It had been offered free and I downloaded it figuring at least I wasn't out any cash.  Since writing that post, I've acquired a couple more of the titles analyzed as well as a few others that somewhat fit my original criteria.  My intention now is to begin reading them to see what my personal opinion is of them.  Not in terms of individual reviews, but in terms of the overall quality.  Maybe something will strike me as needing a comment targeted to one or more authors or books, but at the present moment, not having read any of them, I'm  reserving that right.

I also posted on one of the above linked blogs that I think it's almost impossible in this age of instant mass communication between authors and readers, amongst readers, and so on, to separate the writer from the writing.  Any writer -- and I have to include myself -- is pressured by the marketplace to put more and more and more of herself out there in the public eye, via website and blog and tweet and face.

And that means, at least in my opinion, that the author has to be prepared for negative reaction.

Because after all, what's the alternative?  That reviewers give 5 stars or hearts or roses or whatever to everything so they don't hurt the authors' feelings?  Or worse, so they don't tick off the books' or the authors' legion of fans?

Is every author and every book entitled to a glowing, non-critical reaction?  Is every fan entitled to unqualified confirmation of the rightness and correctness and moral goodness of her fandom?  Why does the entitlement not flow the other direction?  Why are readers not entitled to a good read?  Where is the guarantee offered to readers that they will never be disappointed, never get a wallbanger, never go WTF?

If I read a novel that's set in a location I'm familiar with, do I not have a right to point out that the author got the details wrong?  Is the response "It's a novel!  It's not a geography book!" a legitimate defense?

Or is it more that some fans have become so invested in their fandom that they can no more separate themselves from the world they've entered than can the author who has created (or, in cases, stolen) it?  And does that stubborn loyalty to the book and its creator in the face of rational arguments to the contrary alter the reality?  Does denying that a book is poorly written or that the ending makes no sense or the geography is all wrong make everything all okay?  What if it isn't okay to readers who have not entered the world of the fangirls?  Is every reader now required to enjoy, like, and rave about every book she/he reads?

But all of that is from a reader's perspective and I want to look at the problems from a writer's perspective.

Many years ago, a critique partner of mine had written a romance novel in which the entire development of the plot hinged on a series of highly improbable events over which the characters had absolutely no control and for which they provided no contingency plan had any one of the details gone awry.  Imagine designing a flow chart for a complex process that never has a "no" alternative.  So the story went something like this:

The period is the American Civil War, so 1860s, and the setting is Washington, DC.  The hero is the leader of a spy network operating directly under Secretary of War Stanton's direction.  One of the hero's accomplices has broken into a high-level politician's home and stolen a map that details locations where military supplies that have been diverted from the Union Army are stored.  The politician is a secret Southern sympathizer and he intends to deliver this map to General Lee via a Confederate spy. 

The hero has to obtain the map from his accomplice, make a slightly altered "duplicate," then have the accomplice return the duplicate to the politician's home. 

The day after the map has been stolen, the hero and accomplice meet in a previously designated location, where they have every reason to believe they are secure from anyone seeing them together.  The accomplice, who obviously doesn't have access to email or even a telephone, informs the hero that the break-in has been successful and he now has the map.  They then go on to formulate a plan to transfer the map from its current hiding place to the hero's possession.

The plan is complicated.  They determine that the best way is for both of them to enter a highly publicized steeplechase that will take place the following week-end.  Although most of the course will be lined with spectators who have paid to watch the fastest horses and best riders, one section of the course will be hidden from all eyes as it winds through a wooded area.  The hero and his accomplice will contrive to be first and second in the race at that point, well ahead of the third place horse and rider.  The accomplice will hand off the map when no one is looking and then he will contrive to have his horse stumble.  Another accomplice will arrive with what appears to be an "ambulance," and take the accomplice away to the hospital, except he will instead be whisked out of the city until the duplicate map has been made and it's time to put it back.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  If the hero and accomplice arranged to meet in a tavern where no one would see them, why not just hand off the map then?  That's what I thought, too.  And I asked the writer why that couldn't happen.  She got angry.  When I pointed out that the whole steeplechase thing was way too complicated and contained far more risks than quietly swapping the map in a tavern, that there was no way they could guarantee they'd both be in the lead at the precise moment they needed to be and that no other horse would be near them and that absolutely not one single spectator would be in the woods . . .  she got angrier.  All of this complexity -- none of which made any sense when there were easier, less risky alternatives -- was necessary solely so the heroine could accidentally see the transfer and thus suspect the hero of being a spy for the Confederacy.  (Yes, she would be in the woods where no one could possibly be expected to be. . . .)

I suggested the heroine could be in the tavern and see the transfer.  Oh, no, the now-furious writer told me, that would be too easy and not dramatic enough.

Well, enough of the argument.  Suffice to say we disagreed, she loved her book, and she never sold it.   The point I'm trying to make, however, is that as a reader who was also a writer, I didn't buy the logic of the story.  I had a problem with it and I felt I had a right to say so.  Inherent in that right was my right to say "I don't like this book at all and here's why."

Suddenly, however, or maybe not so suddenly authors and their fans seem to think they have a right to defend their opinions but no one else does.  I don't understand that.  So I'm going to read a few of these books and see what happens.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The words are in the mail

Letters went off, certified mail with return receipt, to Dorchester Publishing at their Madison Avenue address (which apparently is now vacated or something) and at the address given for the law firm handling the proposed sale of the book divisions assets. 

Termination of the contract terminates Dorchester's license to publish and/or distribute the book and all rights revert to me. 

This blog post is published to provide additional documentation that the letters have been sent.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The words that are mine are mine. You can't have them

So.  Yesterday I find out that Dorchester Publishing, a.k.a. Leisure Books, has been foreclosed on by one of their creditors (who also happens to be the owner).  If you're really interested in what's going on with them, there's more information here than most people need or want.  Unless, of course, you're a writer with a contract with Dorchester.  I happen to be one.

In May 1984 I signed a contract with Dorchester for the publication of my historical romance Legacy of Honor, my first published novel.  It came out in mass market paperback the following March.

One of the events that prompted my return to writing was a notice last spring that I stumbled upon at the All About Romance site relative to the boycott of Dorchester/Leisure that was being encouraged by author Brian Keene.  I didn't think much about it at the time, but it did get me to thinking about my own experience with Leisure.

When just shortly after that, I started to resurrect my career, I never went after the digital rights to Legacy of Honor last spring, even though I knew about the problems and knew about the boycott.  The main reason was I also knew I didn't have the time it would take to transcribe the book from hard copy to the computer.  All my other books were in digital files, but I'd written Legacy in the early 80s before I had a computer.  Between the day job and the arts and crafts and general day to day chores, when was I going to find time to re-type 150,000 or so words from the tiny print Leisure version?

So I didn't go after the rights, and now Dorchester is folding and for all I know they could license those digital rights -- yes, they're in the contract covered by one of those "any means now known or developed at any time in the unforeseeable future 'til the sun implodes" -- to some distributor, collect the money, and not pay me a thing.

What makes me more angry than just about anything is the way RWA could have made a huge difference years and years and years ago.  Once again, it's rubber stamp time:

Back in the early 1990s -- I'll have to do some research to determine the actual dates -- Leisure Books was going through one of their frequent bouts of financial distress, a condition that has plagued them off and on since at least the early 1980s.  (They were, in fact, just emerging from bankruptcy or something close to it when I signed that contract with them in 1984.)  I happened to stumble across a copy of a book that was to all intents and purposes a Leisure product in that it had the same cover art, the same text, the same author.  But the publisher was listed as "BMI," or Book Margins, Inc., not Leisure.  I was eventually able to acquire at least a couple of these duplicate copies, which, if I can locate them, I will scan in for this blog.

Because I was active in RWA at the time, I turned immediately to them.  Research was done and the determination was made that Dorchester/Leisure had licensed BMI to produce and/or distribute deeply discounted copies at prices so low that no royalties were due to the authors.   I'll try to find the letter I received from Magaret Brownley with this information.  Needless to say, the affected authors were never notified of these deals.  How much BMI made off them is a good question, and Dorchester/Leisure may have reported the sales on royalty statements, but I don't know.

About the same time, early to mid 90s, Kensington/Zebra was doing the same sort of thing:  Arranging deep-discount bulk sales to distribution points such as Sam's Club, Price Club, and others.  Authors were not notified and received little to nothing on these sales.  RWA did nothing, but you knew that, didn't you?

However, it was this experience that allowed me to recognize the similar action conducted by Pocket Books when they "sold" 28,000 copies of my book Touchstone as a deep discount to. . . .someone.  My royalty on that "sale" was $0.0225, or 2 1/4 cents per copy.  Had this been a regular retail sale, my 8% royalty rate on a $5.99 cover price would have been 48 cents per copy, and even at a cover price of $1.00, I should have received 8 cents.  Now, we understand that distribution of 28,000 copies of a $1.00 book is probably good advertising, but since I had no other books in the pipeline with Pocket in 2004 when this fake first edition/deep discounted rip-off was printed, there was no benefit to me at all.  Pocket made out all right, but I got virtually nothing.

None of these shenanigans require any notification to the author.  The terms are all folded into the arcana of the contract language and the author has had no choice but to sign.  The rights of the publishers were sacrosanct, protected not only by those egregious contract terms but also by the "professional" writers' organizations.

Sort of.

Romance Writers of America never was and probably never will be a "professional" writers' organization, imho.  When I let my RWA membership lapse in 1998, the membership was at least 80-85% unpublished.  Although there were (and apparently are) still internal subdivisions such as PAN (Published Authors' Network) and PASIC (Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter, and more about that later), much more of RWA's energy was directed at keeping the unpublished members happy so they would continue to pay dues and attend conferences and enter contests -- all of which swelled RWA's already fat coffers.  Therefore, whenever the published authors brought up issues complaining of the behavior of publishers -- everything from failure to pay royalties on time or to push book club royalties down to virtually nothing -- RWA stepped back and proclaimed its inability to do anything.  The perception was that the unpublished, who saw ANY publisher and ANY contract on ANY terms as the brass ring, would not tolerate any criticism that might diminish their chances of achieving publication.  And of course the publishers themselves offered all kinds of defenses.

I politely requested Pocket Books to revert my rights to me, including digital rights that they held but could not exercise.  They responded by making my titles "available" in $25 print on demand trade editions.  I'll be looking forward to the huge royalties on those.

Tomorrow I will politely request Dorchester/Leisure to revert my rights to me, including digital rights that they hold and could very easily exercise without paying me a cent.

I have reached the point where I am almost ready to sit down and transcribe the 556 pages of 8-point type and put Legacy of Honor on Amazon myself, and the hell with getting the rights officially and legally reverted.