Thursday, March 15, 2012

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.


  1. I am not a writer and I never will be, however I read between 50 - 60 books a month in a variety of genres and pay close attention to many author blogs and industry news because I am so passionate about reading. I have become increasingly dismayed by what I have been learning in recent months. Fly by night vanity presses folding and leaving authors and editors in the lurch. Publishing contracts that appear to be nothing more than legal robbery. Professional organizations that are anything but and fail to protect the interests of their members.
    As the consumer of the final product, this is deeply troubling. I have a 3000+ Kindle library and thousands more in DTBs, all purchased legally. How can I encourage artists to continue to produce a quality product if I am not sure they are being fairly compensated for their work? For that matter, where is my money actually going?

  2. Oh, Julaine, you have just made all of the struggle worthwhile!

    Writers write to be read, to share their imaginations with others, to bring people they will never know into a world that never existed.

    Publishers, on the other hand, publish to make money. They are -- or were -- the facilitators who bring writers and readers together and for doing so they take a cut. The contracts they've offered are business deals that protect them and their investment, but there is almost nothing that protects the writer, or the reader.

    That's changing, and we know it's changing because of what we see in terms of authors publishing digital editions for which they don't need "publishers" any more. But we also know it's changing because the publishers are desperate to hang onto their cash cows -- the authors.

    Because writers could always write without publishers (and many did!) but now they can publish without publishers. On the other hand, publishers could never publish without writers, nor can they write. If they could, they'd be writers.

    Happy Reading, and thank you for your loyalty to all of us.

  3. I don' t mind the publishers taking a cut to cover their costs, expenses and even a healthy profit. That's the basis of the capitalist system in a free market economy. What a do mind is them taking a cut, the whole pie, the plate, the table, and the oven it was cooked in. I also deeply resent being made an accessory to the crimes being committed by the groups I mentioned in my example above. While I withstand the daily pressure to save money and continue to purchase only from authorized sites is it too much to ask that the people who put their heart in soul into creating a work get paid what they were legally promised.