25 April 2016

Monday Morning Grouchiness

It's been an exhausting week, what with moving far more furniture than my back can really handle (among other things), and the energy expended in not eviscerating someone who really deserves it and maintaining a minimum of civility as required by local rules (for some value of "local"). Just two items today.

First, you've gotta love badass librarians. Especially when they're badass librarians by doing the jobs of librarians, not by swinging fake stage swords at threats that really don't relate to librarianness. And keep in mind that the NPR piece is seriously underplaying the history of religiously-motivated manuscript-destruction in Africa — remember, the burning of the Library of Alexandria was arson.

And then there's... yet more foolishness over publishing contracts grudgingly referenced at PW. (Aside: Knowing what I do about Levine Samuel's approach to contracts, that article must have been severely edited for length and content-acceptability.) I'm going to focus on one flaw in the article as published that infects all of its thinking:

Part of the answer proposed by the Authors Guild is for publishers to offer a new set of standard clauses based on contract terms successfully negotiated by sophisticated agents and attorneys for bestselling authors. However, the issue is more complex than it first appears. Most books have a limited shelf life with uncertain sales. Lack of readership is a more certain answer to the Authors Guild’s complaint that “authors’ income is down across all categories” because of the “unfair terms, including reduced royalty rates.”

(emphasis added) I cry "bullshit."

Many books, in many (but far from all) publishing categories, have nonlinear, discontinuous, diminishing returns over time... under the current distribution and availability model embraced by commercial publishing. Relatively recent history proves that the underlying assumptions are at best of nonuniform applicability, and often as wrong as phlogiston and the ether. In no particular order:

  • There's a publishing behemoth located at (47.592846, -122.315787) — nearly 4,000km outside the Manhattan echobox, and notorious for revealing only "sales ranks" instead of actual figures — whose entire model is (at least sustainably and profitably) based upon the unpredictable timing of backlist purchases by actual readers... as distinct from consignment to booksellers who aren't actually buying the books, but hoping to sell them to others.
  • "Limited shelf life" of early books in series fiction my dragon-heartstring-cored wand. Any limits to the "shelf life" relate to the limits on particular packaging, not to the content.
  • Publishing is the only major consumer-commercial segment that bases its price-to-the-consumer model not on the content, but on the package in which it is delivered. This is the equivalent of pricing 80%-lean ground chuck and a Kansas City strip steak the same because they come in the same plastic-wrapped styrofoam package and weigh approximately the same... and pork chops, and chicken, and...
  • "Lack of readership" is a self-fulfilling prophecy when (a) you don't actually target publicity/marketing/sales efforts at the likely readership for a particular work and (b) you've failed in fulfilling your vaunted role as "gatekeepers" since the early 1960s, and thus allowed a proportion of crap in many marketing categories that would astound Ted Sturgeon ("90% of everything is crap") to bury the good stuff.
  • There is no publishing industry, nor justification for uniform practices. There are thirteen distinct publishing industries, each with their own economics, legal foundation, supplier bases, production cycles, distribution systems, markets, etc.… regardless of common ownership. There cannot be a uniform contract base unless one pretends otherwise (like, say, the house mandate at PW does).

Enough of that for now — time to hone the gutting knife in the other matter...