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.

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