About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Five Paragraph Essay -- Not!

When I was in school, I learned how to write something called the "five paragraph essay." A paragraph of introduction, three paragraphs or arguing by example, a concluding paragraph.

This op-ed piece from Sunday's NY Times, by Farrar Straus Giroux president Jonathan Galassi, is not that.

Galassi discusses and describes the TLC, editorial input, sales and marketing efforts, and etc. etc., that a major publisher invests in the work it publishes, using William Styron's relationship with long-time Random House editor Robert Loomis as an example.

The choice of Styron is not, pun not entirely intended, random. Styron's work has been at the central point of the debate over whether old publishing agreements that do not specifically mention or grant e-book rights nonetheless include them. Several years ago this was litigated but ultimately settled out of court when Styron's estate sought to have e-book editions put out through Rosetta Books instead of via Random House. (The Rosetta site loads much more quickly than Random's; point Rosetta.)

So in all fairness to Galassi, everything he says about the immense potential value of a good publisher and editor to an author is entirely true. There are books and people and situations where somebody can self-publish their way to considerable success, but when a big publisher is totally behind an author, as let's say a Tor is with Brandon Sanderson right now, or a Penguin with Charlaine Harris, (everyone's site loads faster than Random's), they can accomplish things orders of magnitude beyond what anyone can do on their own. And a good editor can do great things to help an author write the best possible work that the author can possibly write.

But Galassi and the NY Times are leaving it to the reader to fill in Galassi's actual point, which is that publishers are such nice and wonderful people that authors shouldn't be in some great rush to strand them at the altar and rush off with somebody else to do their e-books. If you know the history, you know the subtext, and if you don't, the essay is a somewhat trivial meander.

And why doesn't the essay go into the "Therefore..." mode and state its implication?

Well, there's that word "contract" which is nowhere to be found in Galassi's essay. Regardless of all the good work a publisher might do, there is that little contract thing between the author and the publisher which lays out what the publisher can and cannot do, what the author is and is not entitled to from the publisher, etc. And if the contract doesn't say anything about e-books, it doesn't say anything about e-books. Some books, the publisher has translation rights. Some books, the author does. That's an agreement between the parties, where we all sit down and agree how the publisher gets to receive a return on its very real investment in evaluating, acquiring, editing, selling, marketing, promoting and otherwise publishing a book.

As a literary agent, I will also point out that Galassi's essay talks only about the contributors that publishers make. In many cases, an agent may be as or more important as the publisher and over a longer period of time. Some cases not, but it's not as if publishers or agents have a monopoly on providing value to authors.

And I will also point out that life is not fair. Not for publishers, and not for agents. I don't get paid for all the work I do. And if it might not be fair for Random House to lose out on e-books on very old books with contracts that don't anticipate, I can assure all of you that any publisher as big as Random House with thousands of books in its backlist is also capable of falling into money because nobody bothered to revert rights to a book that went out of print 15 years ago or because there was some right quite clearly granted in a contract that seemed not worth fighting about 39 years ago but which suddenly has some unexpected value.


Jessica Strider said...

It's been interesting seeing how all of this plays out (RH vying for e-book rights, etc). The industry is changing, and publishers need to realize that and deal with it intelligently.

It seems right now they're trying things that just make authors and readers angry (like Harlequin's new self-publishing line).

Bill Swears said...

Atlantis Verlag wanted print only German language, and the translator told me that since Atlantis doesn't publish MMPB, I could sell those rights elsewhere in Germany. No electronic rights at all, save a sample chapter on the web site.

I have to say, I see that approach as more honest than RH going back and claiming that publishing rights are like patent - claim as much as possible from the original contract, and fight it out in court.

Peat said...

My agent has certainly done more for me than any publisher. :)