Authors, Books, Business Models, Commerce, Technology, World of Tomorrow

How Not to Negotiate for Digital Rights

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There is an essay making the rounds of the Twitterverse by the distinguished editor Jonathan Galassi; it appears on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, no stranger to good editors. The title is “There’s More to Publishing than Meets the Screen,” and that “more” is all the work a publisher does to bring a book into the world. The occasion of the piece is the recent announcement that the estate of William Styron was seeking to publish ebook versions of some of Styron’s works, and Styron’s original publisher, Random House, would play no role in it. How could this be? Galassi wonders. Random House helped to make Styron successful and thus deserves a place in the arrangement. The specifics of “place” are not spelled out, but we can assume that it means money or outright control of the management of the digital rights to Styron’s works.

I was very sorry to see this piece, as it seems to me to both entirely right from a moral point of view, but also sadly out of touch with what publishers actually do and why they are valued. This is despite the fact that Galassi is among the very best, and if he doesn’t know why people value publishers (at least that segment of the public that does), who does?

This story awakened memories in me, as Galassi (who could not possibly know this) was a major figure in my life. Many years ago, when I was a cub working at Rutgers University Press, I chanced upon an article of his in Publishers Weekly entitled “Publishing as a Seditious Activity.” At least I think that’s what it was called; I can’t find it anywhere on the Web. The argument of that essay was that publishers had to publish what had to be published even if the business case for such an action was hard or impossible to make. I immediately wrote Galassi and asked if I could meet him. He courteously made time for me at his office in New York City and advised me on how to pursue my career.

It was with Galassi’s example before me years later that I was prompted to fight to put Encyclopaedia Britannica online, despite the opposition of the Board. I was head of product development at the time (1992) and had managed to sneak some money into the budget to create Encyclopedia Britannica’s first CD-ROM. But I knew the CD-ROM was a useless publishing format. I was already examining online venues. By March of 1993, we had discovered the Internet and knew precisely what we were going to do. (As a point of reference, the Mosaic browser did not become available until six months later.) We just never told the Board until the product was ready to launch. I hate to think what would have happened to me had Britannica Online not been immediately successful. Sedition was not welcome in an institution that proudly asserted that it had been on this earth since 1768, making it only slightly older than some members of the Board.

Galassi’s moral argument to the Styron estate is that publishers invest time, money, and expertise into an author’s work and deserve to share in the rewards. Thus, the publisher of the printed book should participate in some fashion in the publication of the digital book, as the digital edition benefited from the editorial labors of the printed book.

The problem with this argument is not that it is not true (it is definitely true) but that authors cannot hear it; they don’t want to be beholden to any editor for the shape of their work, though they will diplomatically compliment editors in the Acknowledgments—typically by noting that an editor “helped me fulfill my vision.” My vision. The line-by-line editing of Random House’s celebrated Bob Loomis and the assiduous work of the copy editors can all be read as strikes against the author. As a sales pitch, Galassi’s comment may be heard as something of an insult.

At least that is how I hear it. “Dear author. You are justly proud to be the possessor of a bauxite mine. When you work with us professional publishers, we will process your bauxite into high-grade aluminum. Then we will use our extensive marketing network to shape that aluminum into various aluminum products, from the siding of a renovated home to the instruments in a space capsule. You must be very proud to be part of the extraction industry!” Of course, authors are not part of the extraction industry, nor even of the publishing industry. Authors belong to the recognition industry, and successful publishers court authors not by telling them how much they can help them but by alerting them to the broad public that is waiting to offer acclamation.

And this is what Galassi misses. He correctly notes that a publisher (in this case, Random House) will, among other things, introduce an author’s work to magazines and newspapers for publicity and rights sales, but doesn’t see the parallel universe that authors hope to participate in and e-books are ideally suited for. This is the online world, where not all of a publishers’ connections are the cozy ones around a midtown Manhattan lunch table. In an essay about digital editions of Styron’s work, there is not a single reference to Google or Twitter, though there is a plea that print will not die. An author or an estate may justly ask whether the publisher that worked so hard to bring a book into the world is the right entity to steward a book through cyberspace.

And so in the end Galassi’s argument rests on the high holy ground of moral rights, whereas authors and their heirs occupy the low ground of economic interest. We should not be surprised to see such an argument in the opinion pages of the New York Times, which increasingly has only its moral authority to rely on.

Or Galassi—and Random House—could change the story. Instead of talking about editorial prowess, the argument could be about online marketing, the building of an online community, the monetization opportunities of the author’s specially prepared Web site, the ability to monitor Web traffic and user activity through private administrative accounts, and the inventive management of the emerging online value chain. I hope Galassi is successful in winning the hearts of authors and their agents, but I would put more effort into appealing to their sense of themselves.

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About Joseph Esposito

I am a management consultant working primarily in the world of digital media, software, and publishing. My clients include both for-profits and not-for-profits. A good deal of my activity concerns research publishing, especially when the matter at issue has to do with the migration to digital services from a print background. Prior to setting up my consulting business, I served as CEO of three companies (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Tribal Voice, and SRI Consulting), all of which I led to successful exits. Typically I work on strategy issues, advising CEOs and Boards of Directors on direction; I also have managed a number of sticky turnarounds. Among other things, I have been the recipient of grants from the Mellon, MacArthur, and Hewlett Foundations, all concerning research into new aspects of publishing.

Discussion

18 thoughts on “How Not to Negotiate for Digital Rights

  1. What Galassi misses is that “authors belong to the recognition industry?” I would think many authors would find this distasteful and just wrong; certainly authors who consider themselves artists working in a tradition, whether of poetry or prose, I think, would wince. The business side of publishing is about recognition to a great extent, granted, but it is hardly the core of what literary editors and authors are principally up to, which is what Galassi was talking about. He is not Tim O’Reilly and he’s not selling encyclopedias. Their “editorial prowess” should remain front and center in what they do. Galassi is absolutely right, in my view, to emphasize the value of this.

    Posted by Mike Coffey | Jan 12, 2010, 12:49 pm
  2. I don’t think this is complicated. If you want to be an author, write a book. If you want to be a publisher, keep your mouth shut about all the creative stuff you do along the way because in the end it’s not actually special to you or the people you work with. If it was there would only be a few people who ever helped authors bring good books to market, and as we know there are plenty.

    It’s a lot harder to be smart on a blank page than it is to improve something that’s already written. Exponentially harder. Whatever sweat a publisher labors with is nothing compared to the work of creation. Unless of course the argument is really about sales, in which case it’s pathetic.

    To put a finer point on it: saying that William Styron owes Random House something for his success is like saying the airline you last flew on gets a cut of your pay for the rest of your life for not killing you in a fireball over the Atlantic.

    Posted by Mark Barrett | Jan 12, 2010, 4:11 pm
    • Editing is its own particular skill and is not more or less important or difficult than writing. In some cases, an editor all but re-writes a book or article and the end product can own as much, if not more, to the talents of a editor as to the credited author. Moreover, editing requires its own creative skills and creative challenges.

      This is even true of great literature. Anyone who doubts this should take a look at the edits made by Ezra Pound on TS Eliot’s original manuscript of the Wasteland (available in a facsimile copy from Faber and Faber).

      Anyone who still doubts this should spend a few weeks reading the manuscripts that get sent in to any publishing house.

      In this sense, I have to agree with Galassi—the work of an editor can be a substantive contribution to a published work. However, I also agree with Joe Esposito—at this point it is a moral argument (albeit one I agree with) and not a legal one.

      I also agree with Joe that Random House should be able to compete effectively with Open Road Integrated Media, the company that acquired the right to Styron. The fact that Styron’s estate does not think they can should give Random House pause. If they can’t, in fact, compete effectively with a start-up marketing firm, they have bigger problems than digital rights to Styron’s works.

      Posted by Michael Clarke | Jan 12, 2010, 5:43 pm
      • “Editing is its own particular skill and is not more or less important or difficult than writing.”

        So is brain surgery. So is juggling flaming chainsaws. The question here is which is more important to the final product of a book? I say that original creation matters more, and groups like the WGA back this idea up in their credits policy: you have to do more to earn credit on a film if you’re a rewriter than the original author.

        Can you come up with endless examples of editors who turned raw books into gems? Probably. But where are the examples of all those raw books that were turned into utter crap by an editor who believed in their own infallibility? Why are we always having one-sided conversations about how editors rescue bad writers and bad writing — and why are those conversations always started by editors?

        “If they can’t, in fact, compete effectively with a start-up marketing firm, they have bigger problems than digital rights to Styron’s works.”

        Agreed.

        Posted by Mark Barrett | Jan 12, 2010, 6:23 pm
  3. Mr Barrett: Nothing is complicated if you insist on simplifying it first. And no argument is helpful that resorts to ridiculous analogies.

    Posted by Mike Coffey | Jan 12, 2010, 4:46 pm
    • I didn’t say nothing was ever complicated. I didn’t make any global pronouncements about simplicity.

      What I said was:

      “I don’t think THIS is complicated.”

      As for the analogy, I’ll be non-ridiculous.

      Random House got paid for the work they did on Styron’s books. They had Styron sign contracts so they would be paid, they set a price on their services, and they charged Styron for those services.

      What Styron does with those works after Random House has been paid is Styron’s business unless Random House owns part of those works. If Random House wants to argue that they created Styron himself, or co-created his works, or are due authorial credit and compensation for that credit then they should make that argument.

      If, however, the argument is that they want to be paid in perpetuity for work that they did and were paid for at the time, then I think that argument fails. Please insert your own analogy.

      Posted by Mark Barrett | Jan 12, 2010, 6:28 pm
    • Too funny:

      “An Op-Ed article on Sunday, about e-books, incorrectly described the publishing history of William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness.” It was first published in 1951 by Bobbs-Merrill, not Random House.”

      http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/opinion/03galassi.html

      Posted by Mark Barrett | Jan 12, 2010, 6:39 pm
  4. Bloomsbury was the original publisher of J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series, but that doesn’t entitle them to Rowlings’ profits from the Harry Potter movies — legally or morally. Likewise, publishers have no legal or moral claim on ebooks, which didn’t even exist when authors contracted with the publishers in the first place.

    Posted by Daithi | Jan 12, 2010, 7:33 pm
  5. Editing very much is less different and important than writing. An editor is a remora and a writer is the shark. A writer can get by just fine without an editor; without writers, editors have nothing to do. Writers are primary and editors are secondary.

    Really, how is this not obvious?

    Posted by Joe Clark | Jan 13, 2010, 1:37 pm
    • I think a major difference is in the power equations. Writers are individuals seeking it, editors are a trade holding it. From a creative standpoint, you’re right. From a commercial and scarcity standpoint, things have been different traditionally. Changes in these relationships are causing a lot of turmoil, I think.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Jan 13, 2010, 2:01 pm
    • Joe Clark writes: “Editing very much is less different and important than writing” and claims writers can get by just fine without an editor.

      Really, what is not obvious here? Perhaps a remora is needed.

      Yes, “writers” can “get by just fine” without editors. But can authors? “Getting by just fine” is not what makes a lot of good books, prose, arguments, poetry, speeches, legal texts and the like. Granted, much of what passes for textual communication on the Web and in emails and on blogs of course “gets by” without editing, but we aren’t talking about that. At least, Galassi wasn’t. He was talking about a collaborative process between salaried editors and professional authors. All he did was claim there was value in it. To respond by saying there is negligible value is absurd.

      Posted by Mike Coffey | Jan 13, 2010, 3:06 pm
  6. As Esposito points out, it was Galassi’s choice to make this a moral argument. I agree with Espsoito’s take that it is a mistake to have done so.

    If you own the rights, there is legal recourse. If you don’t own the rights, and you feel you “should”, you can try to make a moral argument.

    I’ll buy that some books get a lot of editing and channel support, but it’s a farce to claim that even the majority of the 400,000 titles published last year got kid-glove treatment. The ones that didn’t get support are not allowed to take back their rights. The same standards should apply to publishers.

    Posted by Brian O'Leary | Jan 13, 2010, 3:53 pm

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