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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, March 13, 2012

Portal Down

This week, Random House unveiled, and I've now started to play around with, an "Author Portal."

This allows authors to check up on their print and e-book sales for their books with Random House, pretty much in real time. It allows them to check on the subsidiary rights sales that Random House has made. It allows them to review their royalty statements. It gives all kinds of information which heretofore hasn't easily been available from the publisher. Some of it has been available only on semi-annual royalty statements with a considerable time lag. Some of it has been available in different ways on Bookscan. Some of it, like timely real time access to e-book sales, hasn't been available at all. Agents can check on all of their contracts with Random House.

Sales information is broken down in different ways. You can check the total number of sales over the life of a title broken down by format (mass market, hardcover, electronic, etc.) or get a pretty good breakdown by sales channel, distributors and book chains and e-book and mass merchandisers and several other strata.

Why is Random House doing this? Why after so many years of trying to keep a lid on some of these pieces of information are they suddenly opening up a curtain to show all?

Part of it is that they can. Not too long ago, the IT involved in dong all of this would have been kind of daunting.

Part is because other people are already making chunks of this information available. As an example, authors can set up a portal on Amazon that allows access to Bookscan sales information.

Part of it is about being relevant. When there are so many ways to self-publish and to get data on your e-book sales with B&N and Amazon with very little lag, one way for Random House to keep authors is to give them more and better information than somebody else can.

There is some benefit to Random House in giving this information away. It will reduce the number of times an author or agent has to ask an editor for some piece of sales information. As an example, I was just querying Elizabeth Moon's editor to see how the e-book sales for Echoes of Betrayal compared to the sales of Kings of the North a year ago. If the portal had been available, I could have gone hunting for that information myself.

If knowledge is power, Random House is giving up some power by giving up knowledge. Certainly for my most successful authors having close to real-time access may give me a little more power at the bargaining table. However, it may also empower Random House as well. Let's say Random House wants to keep publishing an author but feels they overpaid a little on the last contract, now when they come to me and ask for a pay cut they can take the "you can see for yourself" approach because all the disappointing-against-the-advance sales information is there for me to look at and I can be most haughtily informed of that fact. Same thing for an author Random House wants to drop, it takes a little of the burden of dong it gently or nicely off of the publisher because the reason is there for an author to see, it's been there for the author to see, there's no reason for it not to have been seen.

This doesn't entirely disintermediate Amazon and Bookscan. An author can check only their Random House titles, I can only check my clients. Bookscan doesn't track every copy sold while Random House tracks every copy it ships, but a full access Bookscan subscription does allow me to check anything by anyone. However, it's safe to say that if three or four of the six major publishers had similar portals, it would become a lot harder to justify layering a Bookscan subscription on top of that.

It's pretty clear that Random House didn't do a lot of testing and checking of the portal on Safari. I ended up having to switch to Firefox to finish the enrollment process, going back in to actually use the site in Safari my cursor kept disappearing unless I moused outside of Safari and then back in.

The printed royalty statements sometimes contain "Print Summary" sheets that give copies printed and a monthly breakdown of copies shipped and sold and other bits and pieces of information we want to track. The online versions of the royalty statements are direct clones of the mailed ones, they don't incorporate print summaries that weren't incorporated in the mailed royalty statement. So I'll still have to manually request those sheets instead of doing self-service via the portal.

At least from what I'm seeing, the sub rights field is a straight list of the deals that have been made, but it doesn't add a lot of color on what advances might be expected or received from a licensor, it doesn't provide any access or summary of the royalty statements that might be coming in from the sub rights licensor, so I don't have a way to use the portal to figure out how many copies the SF Book Club has sold of Elizabeth Moon's Oath of Fealty, or how many audio copies Recorded Books has reported for Peter V. Brett's The Desert Spear.

It's a little bit clunky, hitting this error then checking that box then clicking on that link, and I feel as if there might be a slightly less cumbersome interface awaiting discovery.

But on balance, let's count this as a win for the home team. It's allowing my clients to find out more, to find out sooner, and to be more aware of what's happening.

So, Thank You, Random House.

Simon & Schuster has something similar going on, I don't have a lot of current business there. All we need is to start seeing Hachette and Harper and Macmillan and Penguin joining the jamboree.

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