The Nameless Horror

Service publishing - a long thought experiment

Publishing has always been an odd industry, even before the commercial and social pressures of the modern era, and following a tangentially-related conversation elsewhere I got to wondering about one possible future version of a publishing arrangement. Traditional publishing contracts are relatively loose in terms of what they offer the author with respect to getting the book in front of readers; the publisher is effectively employer, and while most contracts go into the percentages and remunerative side of things, the actual treatment of the book is left more open. Could a more restrictive format in which the publisher acted more as a service provider on a shorter timescale work?

Imagine getting a contract from a publisher that says:

  • We’ll pay you such-and-such an advance and/or these percentages of royalties on these given formats.
  • We’ll print and have the right to sell x paperback (or x hardback and y paperback), to be released within [this range of a few months].
  • We can sell up to z in ebook or POD hardcopy form (whether small-scale POD or modern short-run commercial printing).
  • Those rights being exclusive for a given territory/territories/language as per normal.
  • We’ll offer promotional support (advertising, PR staff, giveaways, etc.) at release and for [this period] either side to an equivalent budget of no less than $pr at present costs. (This would definitely be the hardest part to quantify, but it’s not actually much different to a regular promotional plan; it’d just mean considering and constructing it at time of sealing the book deal rather than in the run-up to release. And, obviously, it makes the commitment to promote a given book a firm one.)
  • Once those x, y and z books have been sold, or 3-5 years have elapsed (less for single hardcopy edition, more for hb/pb split; sales are almost always heavily concentrated in the first couple of months after release, so even a short period more than covers peak earning period), whichever happens first - effectively, once the promised service has been completed or run its course - the contract ends and all rights revert.
  • All the current usual stuff about you delivering material of publishable quality (better defined; I’ve never seen any attempt to do so in a contract) to deadline if the deal is for two+ books, us providing editorial and design services, what you do and don’t have veto on.
  • If we want to extend the contract, reprint or expand the run, or otherwise change things, a new/amended contract will have to be negotiated.

Would that be feasible? Would it be desirable?

The long wars over the relative benefits and validity of self-publishing versus traditional are more or less over (there are a few holdouts, of course, like soldiers abandoned on some remote island who never received the ceasefire order and refuse to abandon their foxholes even though all their gear is rotten and rusted).

The post-armistice publishing landscape is still littered with the wreckage of battle.

The advantages commonly cited as offered by publishers are: hardcopy distribution, quality control/assurance, convenience (the ancillary services provided by publishers, from cover design to PR to editing, can be perfectly adequately carried out by freelancers, but if you self-publish that’s for you to arrange yourself), and cash up front.

Disadvantages commonly cited include: long lead times or other scheduling issues, uncertain (and sometimes bizarre) pricing, difficulty in ending a contract or reclaiming rights otherwise held in near-perpetuity, level of support (particularly in terms of promotion) varying from plans or promises.

A publisher can get your book into big chain stores (or any stores at all), mentioned in press or paraded at events, and they’ll pay you an advance for doing it. But your book won’t come out for a year (less for digital-only) and external factors (a bigger author delivers a new book and takes the slot, a distributor changes its ordering pattern, the sudden success of the next Gone Girl sees everyone scrambling to push anything even vaguely similar out faster than planned, etc.) can hugely change your due date without you having any input - and current contracted “published no later than” clauses normally have a lot of leeway, you might find yourself with an ebook being sold for $12 in a vain bid to protect hardback prices, a lack of concrete definitions of terms like “out of print” might mean that you can’t get the book back without a fight, and while they may have signed you talking about being the next big thing, six months down the line the success or failure of other projects might mean that your book is no longer something they want to put their energy into.

Generally speaking, as far as I’m aware (and certainly as far as I’ve experienced myself), a publishing contract goes into great detail about the financial arrangements between them and you (for mass market paperback sales (up to the first 10,000) - x%, for book club editions - y%, etc…), sets out the broad responsibilities of both parties (you’ll write everything, with x deadline, while they’ll edit, print and package the book; you’ll have technical veto on x and y and z (though you’ll almost never use it because of the functional power dynamic; you don’t bite the hand that feeds), and if you fail to provide a “publishable quality” work they can shitcan you), explains a little of rights reversion (usually after a number of years, if the book “goes out of print” - whatever that means, or sells less than a (tiny) number of ebook copies in a couple of consecutive quarters, maybe with a secondary definition like “if the book is ever dropped from our catalogue”), and spends little or no time on promises about how much weight they’re going to put behind the book in terms of all those non-cash things that publishers provide (sometimes they’ll stipulate a minimum print run, but that’s it).

This seems a little ass-backwards. I understand why it’s always been this way - given that even if the book you’ve bought is finished bar a light edit, in the twelve months before it comes out, even in the six months before you’re shopping it to distributors, a lot can change. The market suddenly decides that it wants psychological thrillers and that finely-crafted procedural novel just can’t justify as big a slice of your limited print and promo budget as you’d planned. Another similar novel to your Next Big Thing comes out a few months before from another publisher and despite pushing it strongly, it tanks; maybe there isn’t the market for yours that your publisher hoped and they cut their cloth accordingly. Publishers are businesses operating on tight margins in an industry whose economics and consistency are crazy, and they need some ability to hedge their bets. I like publishers and want them to thrive.

But still, the market generally buys what’s put firmly enough in front of it; people suffer decision paralysis when presented by thousands of unfiltered options and they’re normally happy for someone to winnow the field. The relative commercial risk encapsulated in all that hedging and loosely or wholly undefined terms and conditions in a standard contract generally fall more heavily on the author; delaying a release six months makes little difference to a publisher’s bottom line unless they’re a small publisher right on the ragged edge, but that’s a sudden six months without any income for the author. Likewise with punting a particular book down the priority ladder, dropping a format, etc.

I’d think in the modern era that a deal more clearly setting out the practicalities of what a publisher’s offering - not just the finances - would make a deal more attractive to an author considering their options. It might also allow them to compete with one another, or with self-pubbing, on specific terms other than how much cash they’ll put up. Publisher A might offer a higher royalty or a bigger advance, but Publisher B might be offering a bigger print run and a stronger PR package, not just promised in talks but locked into the contract. No different to employment contracts in most industries, in fact.

The last contract I signed was a few years ago with a new, modern publisher, and it was much better in terms of laying out everyone’s duties and responsibilities than ones I’d had before. (And while it didn’t work out, that at least meant I knew exactly when and how and why I could pull out.)

Would/could/should a shorter-term, more concrete and committed approach work in practice?