02 February 2007

Lies, Damned Lies, and Royalty Statements

Two "news" items this morning provide a fascinating contrast on publishing/entertainment industry accounting... and how that accounting invariably screws the people who are actually providing creativity.

On the one hand, the Association of Authors' Representatives — the trade association for successful literary agents1 — has finally realized that the contracts currently in place for audiobooks do not provide appropriate payments to authors for digitally downloaded versions. What's really fascinating in this poor excuse for journalism about the publishing industry is this passage, buried in the middle:

PN understands that royalty fees of around 10-15% are currently the norm, whereas as in some European countries 30% is offered, and some agents believe it should be as high as 40% or even 50%. "If we agree a royalty at 10 or 15%, our authors will kill us later," said one agent. "It's very hard to renegotiate after a year." The trend to unabridged content — much easier to "package" and retail as a download than in multiple CDs — is also changing the goalposts for agents who are used to negotiating one rate for abridged and another for unabridged recordings. However, audiobook publishers have retaliated, pointing out that the recording costs are the same whatever the means of distribution, and there are many new and not immediately apparent costs in preparing and making recorded content available for digital download. "Whether it is being sold in the high street in a jewel case or downloaded, the cost of making a recording — the reader, the producer, studio hire, etc. — remain the same," said Jo Forshaw, Chair of the Audio Publishing Association.

(typography, punctuation, and fake paragraphing corrected) Leaving aside the disingenuousness of that last quotation from Forshaw — as there is perhaps no less-honest accounting anywhere in the entertainment industry than in "the cost of making a recording," and that's up against some pretty stiff competition2 — what I find most interesting is the implicit motivation for the industry to keep two sets of books: One for investors, and one for payees.

Which, unfortunately, dovetails all too neatly into the next item for today. A major film producer is suing an author because the film it made based on the author's book bombed (both financially and critically). Basically, the author (allegedly) induced the producer into buying film rights by claiming that the author's books had sold 100 million copies worldwide. The producer counters that the figure is closer to 35 million sold. They're probably both telling something resembling the truth, for some value of "sold." I do not have any reason to believe that Cussler's sell-through is substantially different from that typical of other novels in the thriller/intrigue category, which appears to be around 40%. That is, if 100 copies of a book in that category get shipped to various stores, about 40 of them will be sold, with the rest being returned. Allowing for a bit of rounding and exaggeration — in advertising, they call it "puffery," which sounds oh so much nicer than "lying" — that tracks with the author's representatives defining "sold" as "shipped from the publisher," and the producers defining "sold" as "in the hands of the reader."

What I find saddest is that Cussler's books are not even good enough to qualify as guilty pleasures. But that's Hollywood for you: Sometimes the best fiction and stories come out of the lies told during the production process.

Then there's this little bit of living in the past: the influx of DVDs for cancelled TV series. I'll believe that it's a real trend when some of the unjustly buried series of the 1980s and 1990s start showing up, instead of mere cult favorites — EZ Streets (which, as I recall, was scheduled opposite Law & Order) instead of Starman. EZ Streets simply had too many layers of grey to be popular in the black-and-white ethics world of 1990s TV; Starman had too many layers of bad writing to be popular under any circumstances.

  1. It is not, however, a "union." And its predecessor got smacked upside the head for price-fixing... which has an interesting resonance with the rest of this paragraph.
  2. My ultimate ambition is to deviously manipulate the nomination system to have the royalty statement from a bestselling novel make the final ballot for a World Science Fiction Award as "Best Short Story." It will certainly qualify as "science fiction"... it's then just a question of "best."