We sent a contract to an author. This author is very keen for us to publish his book.
Now, we’re not (total) idiots – we know that he is keen for us to publish it because Harper Collins and Penguin aren’t returning his calls. That’s fine, we understand.
The author sent his contract on to the Society of Authors, as we advised him to; even though we had a fair idea what their response might be, it’s always a good idea to get a second opinion on any legal document.
The SoA came back with a variety of issues. They have done so on numerous occasions, often saying that some of the terms we offer are weighted unfairly in our favour. (I don’t mind anyone knowing this because I think our terms are perfectly fair, and that the Society doesn’t have a Scooby about the real world.)
To take just a couple of clauses, 14(c) and 14(d), we offered 50% on the sale of the rights to the Work in any territories or languages outside the Home Market, and 20% of publisher’s net on eBooks.
According to the Society of Authors, 80% and 25% would be fairer, and these are the ‘industry standard’.
One of the things I love about running a (very) small publishing business is that it really is, at least in terms of the relationship between us and the author, a pretty much free market.
There’s no government-mandated minimum royalty fee, no union with which to negotiate, and industry standard means zilch.
We offer terms; the author is free to accept them, in which case all well and good, or to reject them and try elsewhere.
Those terms are based on a calculation of risk: it’s going to cost £xx,000 to get a book onto the shelves (and onto Kindle etc); what are the odds that that money will come back, together with a contribution to our overheads, and some profit? Given that the odds are lengthening by the day, or certainly by the year, it’s remarkable that our terms have stayed pretty much constant over the last five or more years.
And in some cases we offer much higher terms.
For instance, as a child I absolutely loved the James Herriot books. My children love them now. I happened to notice that they were not (then) available as eBooks, so I wrote to the son of the late Alf ‘James Herriot’ Wight offering 90% – yes, ninety per cent – of eBook royalties for the electronic rights to the books.
Mr Wight Jnr wrote back very nicely, saying he had passed the letter on to his dad’s agent. The agent rejected us, out of hand.
She didn’t even ask whether we’d have offered an advance – which we would, I would have paid tens of thousands of pounds for those rights. My starting gambit was going to be £30,000 but I’d have gone a lot higher.
Was that the right decision for the agent to make? I don’t think it was, unless the eventual publisher offered something like 75% – at any rate, something a lot more than the ‘industry standard’ 25% (and maybe they did).
I can’t see how, in the current set-up, there is much difference, where the books and the author are already well-known and demand exists, between us and a major publisher?
We can get It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet onto Kindle and iTunes as easily and effectively as, say, John Murray. (To an extent, the same is true for books-proper, too; we can print 50,000 copies of It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet and sell them in forever to Waterstone’s and Amazon, safe in the knowledge that they will sell on forever.*)
But they made their decision, I’m sure – no sarcasm – that they had perfectly respectable reasons, and I hope it works out for them.
Of course, it might have been crazy for me to make the offer I was making. Currently, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet is not selling particularly well. I still think, in long-run pension terms, I’d have been OK. But it’s not a straightforward thing.
The rather obvious point is that industry standard means nothing. A well-known and much-loved author is worth a lot more than a first-time writer, no matter how good he is (and this author has a very interesting story to tell).
This particular author has treated the SoA advice as interesting but irrelevant and is signing with us anyway. This is because he understands the risks involved. I don’t think the Society of Authors does – and if they think I’m wrong, why don’t they start their own publishing house? It’s very easy, and apparently you can make a bomb offering industry standard terms.
*The truth is, in my opinion, that the Wight estate doesn’t need a publisher at all. Which was why I offered 90%.
EDIT: My brother emails me to point out that not everyone agrees with me. I should probably add, I’m not particularly anti the SoA – I’m sure they’re nice, well-motivated and intelligent people doing the best they can. I just don’t think they are always realistic.