Writing a book is a major investment of time and energy. Yet I did one of my books entirely for free. (I will not say which one.) Why would I do that? Not intentionally. It was one of my early books. I signed a no advance contract and so there was nothing to earn out. Yet somehow, when the royalty statements arrived in the mail, there were still never any royalties due to me. I can’t believe the publisher sold absolutely no copies or that it cost substantially more to publish this book than most. Even so, I never got a check. On each royalty statement instead there was a list of expenses, copies sold and figures subtracted from the balance, all to explain why the publisher did not owe me anything. Every publishing contract gives the author a right to audit, but I would have had to pay someone to do the audit out of the $0 I earned. I shrugged and moved on. I tend to think of royalty statements, in general, as explanations of why the publisher does not owe you any money.
I just finished watching “Artifact” a documentary that chronicles the legal battle between the band 30 Seconds to Mars and their record label EMI. (It is now available via Netflix streaming.) If you’re not a fan of the band it might not be a film it would occur to you to watch. If you are involved in the publishing industry, however, I would recommend it because the struggles our brothers and sisters in the music business are facing feel eerily familiar.
In an early scene Jared Leto (the band’s frontman, the protagonist and the director of the film using a pseudonym) expressed his frustration that the old way of doing business was not working for record labels or artists. “Why isn’t there a new model?” he asked.
It is a world where every garage band can record a song, make a video and upload them. Just as everyone who writes a short story can upload a pdf. So it is easier and easier to make a record or a book and harder and harder to get attention for it. Artists do not want to have to be business executives, they want to be artists. Yet in a world where publishers and record labels alike are consolidating and becoming risk averse contracts are getting less artist friendly, payments are going down. There is always a sense that you should be able to do better on your own, and yet we are in an in between era where it is still almost impossible to do so.
I am a bit jealous of musicians, to be honest. Even though their album royalties have fallen off they are able to make a living touring and playing their songs. They can at least say, well, the record isn’t making money but it is promotion for the tours. There is no equivalent for the author. Events at which writers appear, for the most part, are unpaid. You speak at the library or sign books at a store in order to sell the books. Books are only promotion for themselves or for other books and if books do not make money you’re in something of a bind.
If you’ve ever been involved in a protracted lawsuit (I have been involved in a lawsuit over an artistic project with my ballet business- long story) you will relate to this film on another level. Lawsuits are absurd and crazy making. They set two sides up as adversaries, try to bully and gain power over the opponent and at some point everyone realizes that they are becoming the characters in Dickens Bleak House. No one is going to win, the main thing is to try to get out of it without having lost it all.
Settlements seem so anti-climactic. They are not the kind of thing that they usually make movies of. Yet that sense of grudging compromise seemed to symbolize the state of the entire industry, where signing the big contract is not a victory and going it alone doesn’t feel like a victory either.
“Why isn’t there a new model?”