03 February 2011

Snowpocalypse Redux

Not a snowpocalypse after all — only 41cm. That polar bear was right.

  • The ghosts of James Frey and the Beardstown Ladies are now ganging up, along with some dubiously motivated lawyers, on a Nobel Peace Prize winner: Former President Jimmy Carter. A class-action lawsuit claiming that Carter's book on Middle East peace negotiations is "factually inaccurate" but improperly presented as fact has been filed... ironically enough, in Montgomery, Alabama, the same place that gave rise to the seminal case on factual accuracy in advertising: New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).
  • I can't honestly say that I'm surprised to see a few people figuring out that Apple's app store is not the paradise it is marketed as for e-books. Leaving aside the monopolistic/monopsonistic pricing, Apple has a thirty-year history of making its products hostile to the moderately visually impaired, like those of us who wear bifocals. That (along with ethical reasons relating to overreaching IP policies and tying arrangements) prevents me from even being interested in an iPhone, iPad, Mac, or whatever... so I personally don't have to deal with the problem. I just have to deal with authors who do. Windows may not be a paradise, but at least it's not a closed system optimized for Steve Jobs's idea of proper workflow and use.
  • On the same day as UK competition regulators began a formal investigation of the "agency model resale price maintenance agreements" spearheaded by Macmillan, Macmillan USA sent a deceptive letter to authors and agents "offering" to rewrite their contracts for compensation for e-books... that explicitly accused Amazon of being a monopolistic bully. Apparently, "irony" is not in the vocabulary of John Sargent (the president of Macmillan USA), or perhaps it's like irony (just like goldy and bronzy, but made out of iron).

    What makes this letter especially dubious is its ridiculous claim that "25% of net received" is always a better deal than whatever is in the author's existing contract. Leaving aside that a fair number of authors have probably negotiated different terms than a straight 10/12.5/15-for-casebound-editions rate for e-books (and, for that matter, that many authors are not published by Macmillan in casebound editions either primarily or at all!), the letter never provides any factual or mathematical support for its assertions. Its only redeeming feature is that it does not directly impose the 25%-of-net calculation, but invites authors to revise their contracts to that level. Don't do it without getting more facts and running the numbers. And, in particular, don't do it until you have a fair idea of how Borders — which remains a more-than-bit-player in e-book sales — is going to get through the almost-inevitable bankruptcy proceedings... since a "net received" basis means that if payments are delayed to the publisher, they're going to be delayed to the author, too (for even longer, but authors should be used to that by now).

    Here's an example of what running the numbers based on Mr Sargent's letter might look like for an actual current release

    New release, casebound:

    List price: $24.99

    Royalty rate: 15% of list (for simplicity; it has already sold enough copies to make this category)

    Royalty per copy: $3.7485 per copy

    Same work, Kindle edition:

    Amazon price: $11.99

    Royalty rate: 25% of net received

    Royalty rate per copy if publisher receives entire Amazon receipt: $2.9975

    Estimated publisher receipt from Amazon selling price: 70% (based on current Apple app store policies)

    Effective royalty rate: 70% of 25% = 17.5% absent any other deductions

    Royalty rate based on net receipt from Amazon absent any other deductions: $2.09825 per copy

    That is, for total royalties paid to the author to be even equal under Mr Sargent's proposal for this particular work, the price difference must generate sales of the electronic edition of nearly 180% of the copies of the casebound edition without any cannibalization of casebound sales or improper withholding of reserves against returns for e-books. Riiiiiiiight. And it assumes that the authors weren't smart enough to negotiate better rates in the first place (this one would have been). Further, it assumes that the "70% to the publisher" ratio is correct both now and in the long term; I have more than grave doubts, I have substantial historical evidence that it won't (just look at the evolution of the "long discount" over the last decade, let alone the last half-century).

    I'm even more worried about what's going to happen to authors who don't knuckle under a couple of years down the line when somebody in royalty accounting just applies that 25% of net across the board to everyone (even those who didn't agree to the change) as an efficiency measure...

  • The (currently) most-dysfunctional federal court of appeals — the Sixth Circuit — got something right yesterday: A judge can't hang a poster with the Ten Commandments on it in his courtroom without running afoul of the First Amendment. This is a no-brainer decision, although I suspect that even the judge didn't understand that under one significant line of Talmudic thought the very existence of his secular-authority courtroom violates two of the Commandments... and we'll leave aside, for the moment, the possibility that some Hindu, or Buddhist, or Muslim might be tried for a criminal act in that courtroom with the Ten Commandments on the wall.

    Personally, I'd call that judge before the Judicial Qualifications and Conduct Commission; but then, I also advocate keeping "so help me god" out of government oaths, "in god we trust" off the money, and "under god" out of the Pledge of Allegiance because I'm a religious minority by ancestry and by choice. I've seen invidious religious discrimination at work (as if there is any other kind), and there is no place for it in any nation that so inherently celebrates dissent as does any form of representative democracy, regardless of the content of the substantive rights afforded citizens.

  • Locus has issued its 2010 "recommended reading" list, with even more dubious choices and omissions than usual... but that's probably more cyclical than anything else; it's still a helpful starting point. It should not, however, be taken as some kind of long list from which award-winners/finalists (I'm talkin' to you, Nebula and Hugo voters) should/must be drawn, particularly due to the omissions.