Sunday, January 31, 2010

Google and . . .

Most of the time when I think about my writing life, I’m thinking about the writing part—how the story will develop, the way characters are starting to act out, the problems with certain clues. Once I start, I am lost in the story until it finishes. But this month has been about other facets of the jewel of my life—sales and marketing.

I’m not talking now about how to set up programs with libraries, signings at bookstores, or talks to university groups. January 28, 2010, was the deadline for writers to opt out of the newest (and probably final) settlement with Google. The Authors Guild has been staunchly behind the settlement, declaring it a good thing for writers. The National Writers Union has been just as staunchly opposed to it. The last several months have brought me a steady stream of emails about the settlement and opportunities to review the terms on phone seminars. I read the settlement papers sent by one group and sat in on a phone seminar from another. I won’t go over the details here, but I will say that the statement by two lawyers (not both in favor) during the seminar decided me. I opted out of the settlement.

Hard on the heels of that deadline, on January 29, 2010, Macmillan was shut out of Amazon’s Kindle sales and then had all of its books pulled from Amazon, over the issue of pricing. Macmillan is huge and most of us buy books published by one of its imprints some time during the year without even realizing it. The day I signed my contract with G.K. Hall for my first book in 1985, A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery, the editor sighed and told me, “That’s the last contract we were allowed to sign. Macmillan shut everything down when they bought us out and put everything on hold. The writers are going crazy waiting to find out what’s going to happen.” I know what happened to some of them.

Amazon is now doing to Macmillan a bit of what Google is trying to do to writers—take over “the product” and make all decisions, regardless of official ownership and other rights.

This is not a good time for writers, but when I think about other writers, from Chaucer, who had enough day jobs to populate a small village, up to the number of writers in recent years who were also physicians or businessmen or teachers, I realize there is no time that is good for writers. I don’t know if it matters who wins in the Google settlement or in the Macmillan/Amazon dispute. I only know that the business is changing and the only way to maintain any integrity in my work is to hold on to it as much as possible. When I go on line and find copies of my books for sale in India (India!) and in Europe in formats never part of any contract, I wonder if it’s possible to hold the line, but I’m not ready to give in just yet.

In the 1960s the average starting salary for a social worker was $5,000. A writer who sold a short story to a major magazine, Redbook or Saturday Review, was paid $5,000. The advance for a novel was generally $5,000 into the 1990s and 2000s. And now? Can you imagine any unknown writer selling a story for $30,000? Or getting an advance of $30,000 for each book in a series of midlist crime novels?

Google and Amazon are not the problem—they’re just symptoms of a larger problem, and not one that I can solve, but at least I can resist it as the opportunity arises. And for now I will sit on the sidelines and watch the big guys duke it out while I work on selling my crime fiction through the usual outlets—bookstores and libraries—and work to find perhaps a few new ones.

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