Part 2: Speakin' My Language


Last time I introduced this series, about the ways that digital possibilities affect the way publishing operates. This time, I bemoan ridicule discuss some of the things that are holding us back from getting excited about it.

Contracts. Contract language. One of the top reasons writers need agents. (The others being: so you have someone to whom to send cupcakes, for their rolodexes Gmail contact list. Psychotherpay. A drinking buddy.)

Contracts are evil, vicious things. They are tangled webs of nasty waiting to snag writers by their skipping feet and drag them to a rightsless hell. Boilerplates, negotiated between a publishing house and an agency, form the bedrock of all deals done between those entities. BedROCK. It’s not flexible. That was okay before. But the digital stuff doesn’t lend itself to rigid definitions like, say, foreign translation rights (involving a specific language and a specific territory).

Yet when people start talking about apps and ebooks, rights and contract language are pretty much the first topic of interest. How do we define “multimedia rights,” for instance, so that there is a boilerplate-ready understanding of what one sells when they fork over the multimedia right clause? It’s a serious (hopeless?) pain in the ass undertaking.

Even defining ebooks vs. apps vs. enhanced ebooks is contentious. What differentiates them? How much of the original content blahblahblah I’m bored with this conversation.

Who cares?

Who cares what “multimedia rights” “really” "MEAN""?" (yes, I'm mocking your quotey fingers) It clearly has no intrinsic meaning. It’s a catchall, and it's not functional anymore. Let it go. (See? Psychotherapy)

The cool stuff that can be done with books today is literally boundless. An idea that used to have a terminal life as one thing: a book (nothing wrong with that, put the pitchfork down) can be reincarnated. It means we are going to have to treat every contract like it’s new. We’ll be adapting the language every time to accommodate the plan for each project. Publishers are playing hardball, so it's going to be hard. That’s okay, guys.

We've got to make a plan for each project (topic of the next post, on Wednesday) and get educated on these technologies. It’s a lot of information. But so was learning all the Big Six imprints. If agents are going to continue to advocate well for authors, it means knowing about this stuff, or knowing the people who do. Let’s drop the semantic debates and get started.

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Josin L. McQuein said...

One of the biggest problems, as it seems to someone on the outside, is that the speed of publishing isn't equitable with the speed of technology.

I don't just mean in the sense that e-books are on the rise, I mean the general "18-24 months to publication" scenario for most new novels. In 18-24 months, entire formats are established and replaced by newer, faster, shinier formats. Devices go hot and cool off. The relevant becomes the obsolete.

I'm not actually complaining about the 18-24 month window, but it's an illustration of the differences in speed between the publishing industry and the technologically saturated public it wants to reach.

Meredith Barnes said...

Ah, my thoughts echo yours. Check back on Wednesday for some commentary on that.

Livia Blackburne said...

Great post, Meridith. Since publishers are playing hardball nowI'd be interested to hear about whether and how you think the ease of self publishing these days enters as a factor into contract negotiations. Is it ever used as leverage? And if it is, how does it mesh with the interests of an agent who has probably put a lot of hard work into a manuscript and wouldn't get paid under traditional arragements if the author self publishes?

Anonymous said...

I am ridiculously excited to read more of this series -- not just because I love shiny electronics, but because you've got such a smart, sensible take on it.

Meredith Barnes said...

@Livia Excellent thought. Self publishing isn't typically leveraged in traditional deals...unless, of course, you sold 50K the first week or something.

BUT I will say that the ways agencies are looking at self publishing (and agents' roles in it) has changed dramatically. Next series, perhaps?

David said...

It seems that as ebooks become even more prevalent, the sales of print books will have to suffer, won't they?

And will not this eventual overtake of print give the self-published even more much so that print may not be necessary?

I'm just wondering if there will come a day when Amazon and other ebook facilitators make it possible for writers to skip agents and print publishers altogether?

The largest problem I see with this (besides the decrease in print books) is that if agents aren't as big a part of the picture, that's just another variable that will continue to lessen the quality of fiction in the future.

Livia Blackburne said...

next series? Yes please!

Meredith Barnes said...

@David it seems you and Livia clamor for the same series! Amazon and co have already made it possible to skip agents and publishers...the results, admittedly, are mixed at best.

Agents can continue to play a role in vetting books--even if those books are sold through new/self-pubbed/?? channels. There are some very, very interesting hybrids in the works and agents (FPLM and NC in particular)are partnering to make whole new business models possible.

Of course, this means authors still have to go through the query process with agents. Patiently. With other avenues available, some authors just aren't willing to wait.