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, April 9, 2013

Do The Right Thing

I feel good today, as Skyhorse and Start have announced better terms to facilitate their purchase of certain assets of Night Shade Books, hopefully avoiding a bankruptcy for Night Shade, allowing the two companies to invest themselves in the market for new science fiction and fantasy, and giving certainty to upwards of 150 authors who had been published by Night Shade.

Credit for this goes first and foremost to Tony Lyons of Skyhorse and Jarred Weisfeld of Start.  We don't know how many authors they needed to get on board for the program or how many they had or seemed likely to have.  We do know that their introduction to the world of full-blown involvement in sf/fantasy was overwhelming.  They may have been lacking in forewarning or preparation; Tony was prepared to hear more from 20 or 30 authors about the deal than some 200 or more from all corners.  But ultimately, they did the right thing.  They reached out, spoke to people, and came to the plate with a considerably improved set of terms.  They didn't have to.  They could have gotten the minimum number of authors or titles or billings to make the deal happen.  They could have washed their hands of the idea of being involved with the community.  Instead, they decided to come in with an improved deal that makes it many times easier to get to yes.

I will give myself a little credit.  I've had my blog going for more years than I can quite believe.  Most of the year, more years than not, I find I don't have the time to blog as much on as many things as I'd really like to.  Quite honestly, I didn't have the time now; it's our busiest season, London Book Fair is around the corner, and I had one title caught up in the Night Shade imbroglio with only a modest royalty due or likely at stake in the process.  But I feel like this is why I've had the blog all these years, and it was Brillig's moment.  Thanks to linking from io9 and Tobias Buckell and others, my original Night Shade post had more page views than any other post in the blog's history.  And it's a post I'm proud of.  Like a lot of things I do, even that one post was a team effort, with input and suggestions from everyone on the JABberwocky staff.

But that said, the post didn't operate or exist in a vacuum.  Michael Stackpole looked a lot more closely at the ramifications of specific contract clauses than I did.  Another agent, Andrew Zack, did a series of posts, spent a lot of time on the phone with Tony Lyons, said some things that I might have said, chose not to, but which probably did need to be put into the conversation by someone.  Justin Landon at Staffers Musings filled in some blanks as well.  Charlie Jane Anders was like the Lois Lane of io9 on this one!  There were a lot of other people, many of them with modest direct interest, who took the time to talk about this.

Anyone who wants can quibble still with aspects of the revised Skyhorse offer, and I don't want to hear from those people!  The royalty rate is low, but I've done a lot of deals with lower royalties than this, especially with small press.  And this reasonably low royalty rate considering is on top of promised full payment of current arrears with a publisher that has a an awfully big arrear end.  I'm not thrilled with the revised audio language, and I don't want to hear from myself on that; this isn't one of those times I get to be thrilled with everyone.  The revised language on assignments -- well, it seems a lot like something I had in my own suggestions to Tony Lyons, which is sweet!

Under all the extant circumstances, this is a deal that's about making it easy to say Yes.

We can't let up.  I'm still not sure who the arbiter is supposed to be to decide which of at least three possible figures for how much of a royalty is owed on Elizabeth Moon's MOON FLIGHTS is the correct one.  Concerns have been expressed about the mechanism for paying people.  I don't know who it is who communicates with my clients and I about the revised terms in a formal way, and provides the formal document for signing.  Stuff like that.

And I'm going to dump a little more on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  I've heard a gazillion excuses for why, even after this whole kerfuffle became public, they were still hiding off in a back room communicating in secret private ways like they were guarding access to a speakeasy, and I'm not convinced of any of them.  Just at the level of the lowest hanging fruit, how could they have signed off on indicating to members that they were cool with the assignment language in the original agreement?  That kind of broad assignment language is one of the most basic things I as an agent would negotiate away in any contract negotiation.  And now, after e-mails to me that had a "go away, stop bothering us, and go give your clients whatever damnfool advice you want on the deal" kind of tone to them, and hiding off in a dark corner, and having some responsibility for not forewarning and preparing Tony Lyons (I don't know, maybe they did and he didn't listen, but it doesn't sound that way to me), they come out with some happy smug little statement about the new terms like it was all their idea and all their hard work.  "After continuing talks with Skyhorse/Start, SFWA is pleased that the companies have decided to adjust the royalty terms in their author agreement to be more in line with industry standards for Science Fiction and Fantasy. We see this as a positive sign that they are listening to authors and are responsive to their concerns, and we hope that continues. SFWA has remained in close communication with our members who are directly affected by the sale of Night Shade Books assets and will continue to provide them with information and support."  Just to say, I've been a dues-paying affiliate member of SFWA for pretty much as long as I've had JABberwocky, and their close communication never included me, as an agent, with clients who had interests in this and were affected by it.  I've been a staunch supporter of SFWA, I've encouraged all my clients to join the organization as active members when eligible, and this is the and continues to be the darkest moment I can remember in my 27 years in this field.  I don't know the extent to which SFWA has been involved behind the scene in talking to people over the past week, and I will happily change this tune if there's some different sheet music put in front of me.  But they can't even be bothered to stick in a "listening to authors and their agents" to acknowledge the work of an Andrew Zack on a deal that SFWA had blessed?

The best way to close is to reiterate my heartfelt thanks to Tony Lyons and to Jarred Weisfeld for listing and revising and improving, and to thank all of those who took their time to get things to "go."

Onward and upward with the arts.  And:

Excelsior!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Tachyon's Soul

As a tonic to all of the Night Shade discussions this week, let's talk about something that involves another distinguished sf/fantasy press in the San Francisco Bay area, Jacob Weisman's Tachyon Publications, which is the publisher of the Hugo-nominated novella THE EMPEROR'S SOUL by Brandon Sanderson.

It's an interesting story, to me at least, on many levels.

For one, I'm old enough to have grown up in an era when we didn't have all of these internet magazines like Lightspeed and Clarkesworld and Daily SF and etc.  So just for that reason alone, it's hard to believe that it took a little over a year for Brandon Sanderson's THE EMPEROR'S SOUL to go from non-existence to Hugo finalist.  Unless you really hit the jackpot, writing a story in January and submitting it to the magazines that were pretty much the only places to go for this sort of thing in 1980, having a quick try on the first sale and having the story sneak in to the November of December issue -- it just couldn't happen.  Magazine lead times are so long.

And if anything, THE EMPEROR'S SOUL was compressed even further than that.

Brandon was touring Taiwan in Winter 2012.  He was inspired to write something by some stamps he saw at a museum.  During a break between drafts of A Memory of Light in February 2012, he wrote a few small things that could be fit into the available time.  According to a forthcoming review for one of Brandon's books, he is "inhumanly prolific" so he managed to write this 30,000 word novella in a relatively short amount of time, finishing toward the end of February.  He sent it off to Moshe Feder, the Tor editor who discovered and purchased Brandon's debut novel Elantris, for a look-see, and Moshe e-mailed on March 8, 2012 to say "What can I say? I love it!"

I was jealous Moshe had gotten first crack at it, so I got a copy myself.  As that upcoming review says, Brandon is "inhumanly prolific," so I was able to load up my iPad with an epub file of the new novella, another new novella, and a new draft of his YA debut The Rithmatist, and with a free afternoon on the weekend of March 10/11 2012, I headed off to the New York Sports Clubs on Park Ave. and 23rd St. in Manhattan and spent a few hours on the elliptical reading new Brandon Sanderson.

I didn't just love THE EMPEROR'S SOUL.  I thought it was something special.  It made me feel the way I'd felt a few months before when I'd had a break in my reading pile and read an issue of Asimov's with Kij Johnson's "The Man Who Bridged the Mist," a great novella that was on all the award ballots and winning many during 2012 (that was read on the bike in my building's gym, there's nothing like having good reading to burn the calories).

But what were we going to do with something that I was convinced was an award-caliber novella?

This made for some interesting conversations with Brandon in the next day or two.

Brandon wanted the novella out in 2012.  This is the opposite of the ideal approach for being on award ballots.  Too early in the year, maybe people forget.  Too late, maybe not enough time for people to read and word to spread.  But Brandon was worried that he didn't have a book-length work of his own to come out in 2012.  Alloy of Law had come out Fall 2011, Memory of Light was due January 2013, Brandon wasn't buying my "oh, the paperback of Alloy of Law will be out in 2012, that's a book!" arguments.

That made it very hard to consider the magazine route.

As or more important in deciding against the magazine route, Brandon was itching to be doing some e-books of his own.  Even if a magazine purchased the story ASAP and could have it out, it wasn't going to pay a lot of money, maybe $1500 or $2000, and it wasn't going to allow a separate e-book.

Nor, in all likelihood, would Brandon's regular publisher, Tor.  The big publishers will occasionally pick up something first published in e-book, and maybe be persuaded to leave the e-book rights behind, but as a rule they won't buy books where they don't have e-book rights.

We were waiting on publication that summer of Brandon's novella LEGION from Subterranean, but we didn't like that option here, of trying to have two Subterranean novellas in such quick succession.

And that was when I pushed back a little, and decreed that the novella was simply too good just to be done as an e-book by Brandon himself.  Maybe none of the familiar things we were doing was the right thing for THE EMPEROR'S SOUL.  Maybe, this was going to be my first Tachyon Publications book.

I confess, I was being a little selfish here.

I wanted a Tachyon Publications book so very very badly.

And I never had one.

I'd chatted with Jacob Weisman at the Tachyon table at WorldCon or World Fantasy for years and years.  I'd watched the quantity and quality of books at his table grow.  Not the literary quality, but the physical quality.  The gorgeousness of the covers, the attractiveness of the design, every year he was in business a trip to the Tachyon table had become more and more of a visual feast.

The problem for me was that "literary quality" thing.

For all the success JABberwocky has had over the years, it was somewhat reflective of its owner's tastes.  This is changing, because Eddie Schneider has a more literary bent in his reading tastes than I do in mine, and since adding Eddie to the staff in 2008, he's building a roster of authors with a very different profile.  But I've always been a bit more of a plot person.  I'm the kind of person who usually reads two lines of the fiction in The New Yorker and then starts flipping pages to look at cartoons en route to the "critics" section of the magazine that follows the fiction.  My own tastes have intersected only occasionally with the Nebula Award ballot, and never with the World Fantasy Award ballot.

Which wasn't Jacob Weisman's thing with Tachyon.  The sad fact was, I'd spend years looking longingly at this beautiful array of Tachyon books from all the best authors in sf/fantasy, and then I'd go thinking about the JABberwocky catalog which is usually in my bag just in case there's someone to give to at these conventions, and it was like the Mars and Venus thing.

So, heck no, Brandon Sanderson was not going to take an award caliber novella and put it out himself and deprive me of the one chance I'd had to actually give something to Jacob Weisman that I could suggest he buy -- well, let's not say "with a straight face," let's say "with a sincere and firm belief that he would and should want to buy it."

So on March 14, I e-mailed Jacob, and I told him I had an award caliber novella by Brandon Sanderson, it gave me the same feeling I had when I was reading the Kij Johnson story, and would he maybe want to take a look.  And oh, by the way, Brandon really wants to keep the e-book rights, and he really wants to have this out before the end of the year.

The rest, as they say, is  history.

Jacob asked me to send it along and promised me he'd read it quickly.  He did.  This was very important to me; it was one thing for me to know and feel in my heart of hearts that this was an award-caliber piece of fiction.  Having Jacob Weisman agree to publish it -- that was the guy with the table full of beautiful books by all the authors who kept getting nominated for all the awards telling me it was.

We agreed that it was kind of late to absolutely promise 100% for sure that it could be out in 2012, but we'd all do our darnedest that it would be available by World Fantasy,  Which made things a little more complex, since World Fantasy was in Canada, which meant longer shipping time and tighter deadlines.

He agreed that Brandon could do his own e-book. Not without some concessions at our end; the size of the advance or giving some UK rights to Tachyon were particular areas where I had to fight less zealously.

And by March 23, 2012, we were looking at the artwork that Jacob and his managing editor Jill Roberts were thinking to use.

I'm still a bit amazed by it all, that something so good that hadn't even been a thought in January 2012 had become a brilliant piece of fiction by the end of February, sold to the perfect publisher -- as if fate itself were guiding our hands -- by the end of March, and was sitting at the banquet tables at the World Fantasy Awards banquet on November 4.

And most amazing of all, that on March 30, 2013, around 13 months after it was finished, it was being announced as a finalist for this year's Hugo Award.

Is it the best novella on the Hugo ballot this year?  I'll let you tell me that, and we'll find out together alongside the Riverwalk in San Antonio on Labor Day Sunday.

I will tell you that it is and always will be an award-caliber piece of fiction, and one that deserves reading.

Am I biased?  Well, not as much as you think.  There's nothing that can kill a book faster than bad word of mouth, and if you find me trying to sell you something, I'm going to try and sell you something I think you'll love.  Something you'll tell all your friends you love, not something you'll tell them to avoid.  Because what would have happened if I'd spent the past ten years trying to sell Jacob Weisman things that weren't really right for Tachyon?  I could have, easily.  But I respected the integrity of Jacob and the Tachyon Publications list way too much to do that.  When I finally stopped chatting across the table in some hotel function space or convention center hanger that I sure hoped I'd have something for him someday and finally said "I have something," I think that counted for something.

Which, to digress -- some people say of agents, and rightly so, that we are the people who won't submit your book to all the places you'd send it yourself, that we are standing in the way and working for ourselves when we ought to be working for you.  Well, yes!  Because someday, you may want to be the author who benefits when I put my reputation on the line and say that this is something you should want, and want badly.

So when I write this blog post today, when I spend 1900 words telling you about THE EMPEROR'S SOUL, you'll know how much this novella means to me.

You can check out review quotes for the book on our website.  Many of those quotes have live links to the original review.

You can order the novella directly from Tachyon.

Or you can order it from some big book retailer.

If you buy the print edition from anywhere, Brandon has this thing, he talks about it on this blog post, where he will send you a free e-book edition!

Or, you can just buy the e-book from some different big book retailer.

Hey, listen!  Audio here.

For our friends in the British Commonwealth of Nations:  Kindle (click link to find reasonably priced marketplace used copies, omnibus edition with Legion due this summer), and WH Smiths/Kobo.

There are arrangements made or in process for translated editions of the novella in Taiwan, Spain, Germany and other markets.

Obviously, we owe a lot of thanks to all the people at Tachyon, not just Jacob but Jill and everyone else there, for their work on this novella.  And to Moshe Feder, who so often provides edits for Brandon beyond what he has to do in his role as an editor for Tor.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Night Shade Writers of America

Usually I try and refrain from posts that will ruffle too many feathers, but I can't tell everyone else we should be talking about the dissolution of Night Shade in public and then not do so myself.

For those of you who don't know, Night Shade Books is a highly regarded -- well, artistically highly regarded -- publishing company specializing in sf, fantasy and horror.  It has published many excellent authors, with beautifully packaged books, published with great love.  It was a company that I wanted to be in business with very, very much.

Unfortunately, the company was poorly run. In 2010, this became public knowledge.  There were issues with late royalties, and with e-books being published by Night Shade when their contracts did not give them e-book rights.  We were aware of those issues already, and we had stopped submitting to Night Shade.  It wasn't just that they were so often late, but that we never felt entirely comfortable with the excuses or forthrightness of the people who ran the company.  But we hadn't gone public.  Authors don't like to admit they aren't being paid, and what high-powered literary agency talks about not being paid?  You wonder: Do they just not want to pay us?  We don't have the clout and everyone else is getting paid?  

In fits and starts over the past few years Night Shade would occasionally make some payments and seem to be making progress, but never went a few royalty periods in a row without having problems.

And now, Night Shade has sent out a letter, the opening paragraphs of which can be found here.  They can't continue as a going concern.  Saviors have been found in Skyhorse Publishing and Start Publishing LLC.  Not to actually purchase the company, but to maybe buy assets if enough people agree to sell them.

So the first thing to notice is that the letter starts with a sentence that, um, nightshades the truth:  "Night Shade Books has had a difficult time after the demise of Borders."

Let's be clear.  For all the artistic contributions Night Shade has made to sf literature, it's had problems paying royalties that go back five years.  For those five years, they have repeatedly promised better things, adding new staff or new systems.  I can't call this opening sentence a lie, because Night Shade has certainly had a difficult time after the demise of Borders.  But since Night Shade's authors have have problems with royalties that long predate the final days of Borders, it is disingenuous.

Even though the e-mail which sent me this letter and the letter itself don't contain any confidentiality language, everyone is acting like it's a secret.  They shouldn't, and these are highlights of the terms and conditions (Scribd is hosting a copy of the letter.):

Your print royalty will become 10% of net proceeds.  This means an effective royalty rate that is likely at or a little under 5% of cover price.  This is not an unusual royalty rate for publishers outside of the orbit of the major NYC publishing companies.  But it is for many Night Shade authors half or less the royalty rate on their current contracts.  It is also an across-the-board rate for all formats.  All publishers usually offer higher royalties on hardcovers than paperbacks.  I can't imagine there are many Night Shade authors that are better off with this royalty rate.  Most are worse off; how much worse depends on publication formats and specific details of current contracts.  Skyhorse handles your print books.

If Night Shade has e-book rights (for some books, it does not), those go to Start Publishing.  The royalty rate is given as the current industry standard of 25% of net receipts.  I am told but have no first-hand knowledge that some Night Shade contracts had offered more.  I'll go off the agent's reservation here, and say no one can complain about this provision by itself.  Authors and agents have often insisted on having re-visit provisions if e-book royalties go up, and if here someone has to reduce a royalty that is above the current industry standard, how upset should you be?

Regardless of what your contract currently says, you have to give Skyhorse and Start the audio rights and second serial rights to your Night Shade book, unless you have sold or are about to sell those rights yourself.  This is significant, because these rights have value.  Even if the underlying print book is caught up in a bankruptcy proceeding, these rights may still have value.  Any author who gives up these rights has to weigh that value against the value of royalties to be paid when signing this letter, and that has to be part of the overall evaluation of the proposed assignment.  The meaning of audio rights is very clear, but I'm not clear if "second serial" is intended to include only "serial" rights as narrowly defined, selling to magazines, or related rights, like selling an excerpt from your novel or a short story from your collection to an anthology or for use on a reading comprehension test.  Without knowing that, it's hard to say if a client with a short story collection is giving up a lot or a little in potential future revenue. Revenue from these relinquished rights would be split 50/50.  The standard practice is that the author's share will be applied against any unearned advances, and because of the lower royalty rates, your advance will earn out more slowly.

If you agree to this, and if enough other authors agree to this, you get paid your current royalties owed. Which is a good thing, but one that has to be weighed against what you relinquish in future royalty rates and other rights granted.

Author Michael Stackpole has an excellent post going through the above provisions and others in very good detail; keep in mind that he is opposed to the agreement, and as he says in his post, he can afford to be.

The alternatives:

If not enough authors agree, Night Shade goes into (probably Chapter 7) bankruptcy.  The contracted rights for your book are tied up in the bankruptcy.  Who knows when or if you get paid royalties and advances currently owed, or how long it will take to resolve.

If enough authors agree, the authors who agree are now with their new publishing companies and get royalties currently owed in exchange for granting new rights and for accepting a (most likely) substantially reduced royalty on future sales.

If enough authors agree but you do not, the rights to your book remain with the partners in Night Shade.  Will they subsequently liquidate/go bankrupt?  Who knows?  None of us are being told how much is being allocated to pay off other creditors, and we have no way to determine whether books left behind will be tied up, or reverted, or in purgatory.

Author by author,  it isn't for me to say if this is a good deal or a bad deal.

For one of my clients it's clearly a bad deal.  The audio and second serial rights to be given up have more prospective value than the present value of anticipated royalties.  For another author, maybe you've already sold audio rights so that doesn't weigh down on the equation, or maybe your unpaid royalties for 2011 are so much bigger than likely future royalties that it is more important to get full payment for the past than to worry about the reduced royalties in the future.

But even if I had a client who might benefit from the deal, I'd have a long hard talk with myself and with my client if any of my clients should sign off on this.

Most important, the deal is structured in such a way that authors who might benefit have to start arm-twisting to get authors who shouldn't sign to sign anyway, to be sure the mysterious unknown threshold of authors is met.  This isn't a hypothetical.  I am told but haven't seen for myself that this is already happening, with authors who want this getting on other authors who do not.

To put this another way, the deal is structured to encourage authors to band together to take what is for some of them clearly a bad deal, rather than to band together to get a better deal for all.

Also implicit in the structure of the deal:  Night Shade authors get to spend the rest of their lives looking at one another, wondering who's gotten the better deal in this process.  There's a mysterious process by which there is this rumor that some authors are going to Skyhorse and negotiating changes, but is anyone willing to tell us whom they've spoken to and what changes have been agreed to?  Tony Lyons isn't responding to my e-mails yet.  Is he too busy?  Is the book I want to talk about not important?  Will the company be willing to offer global changes based on comments it is hearing in these side negotiations?

Authors are being enlisted to fight against one another, but without knowing what constitutes a win. Is the acceptable number of assignments received based on number of authors, number of books, percentage of Night Shade's sales billing?  A book like Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which won every award in the field and sells well, is clearly worth more in this process than any Night Shade book by a JABberwocky client, but I don't know if or how that is reflected in determining if the deal goes through.

The "or else" to the process: The alternative is a bankruptcy proceeding where authors might get pennies on the dollar and have their work tied up for years.

This is quite true.  Authors are unsecured creditors, and are at or toward the back of the line in a bankruptcy proceeding.  Some publishing bankruptcies have dragged on for years and had unpleasant outcomes.  Here is an article from a while back about an author caught up in the Stein and Day bankruptcy that inspired a jeremiad about the process from one of the owners.  This was a poster child for a bad publishing bankruptcy in my early years in the business.

I am not a bankruptcy attorney and don't know how a Chapter 7 might differ from a Chapter 11 (the kind big public companies, which Night Shade is not, go through, which we read about in the news) or other kinds of bankruptcy.

But any bankruptcy is a public filing, and it goes before a judge.  Creditors are put into classes.  Writers might be unsecured creditors and somewhere back in the line to get paid, but our interests would be represented as a class.  It might also be possible for authors to group together as a class to hire attorneys to represent us as a class.

The current process is a private free-for-all with no supervision, and we are relying on the same people who've had challenges paying us royalties for several years to now do the right thing for all of us in the private sale process.  If you wonder why this concerns me, you can check out Staffers Book Review which has a "what went wrong" about Night Shade business practices.  Where that post overlaps with my personal experiences, I can concur with everything that's said.

We would also know in public how much Night Shade owes to unsecured authors vs. secured creditors, to authors vs. the printer or other non-author creditors, how much it owes in total vs. its assets.   Nobody is volunteering and nobody is asking for any of these important pieces of information to be provided to us in this private process.  These are important questions.  Sometimes a bankruptcy proceeding drags down the benefit to creditors.  In going bankrupt, Borders was able to pay far less to its creditors than suggested by the straight-up asset/liability calculation because the assets were liquidated in going-out-of-business sales at fire sale prices and a lot of expense was incurred just to go through the process.  But it's still helpful to know in evaluating just how deep the hole is.

With the current process, it is very difficult if not impossible for another bidder to emerge.

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) has been on Night Shade for the past three years, since their issues became public in 2010.  The organization can be a forceful advocate for writers.  Just a few weeks ago, SFWA got a lot of good press for putting public pressure on Random House (each word there is a different link; I want to make it very clear how much well-deserved good press SFWA got here) regarding the contract terms for some new e-imprints that Random House had started up.

If SFWA thinks this is a good deal, it should be willing to be as public in its support and its discussion of the terms being offered as it was in sharing the terms of the Random House e-imprint contract that was provided to it.

But with this Night Shade situation, SFWA is communicating to members or a subset of members known to be published by Night Shade like this:  "The purpose of this report is to answer some of the questions we have been receiving from you. We ask that you not share this report outside the membership."  Their annotated version of the Night Shade assignment letter is hidden in a non-public area of their website.  And most of what they do say is always accurate as far as it goes, but it's what they choose to say or not say that tilts the entire conversation.  All the risks of saying "no" are prominently highlighted, all the risks of saying "yes" are obscured.  SFWA makes it abundantly clear that there are huge risks in bankruptcy and you may get pennies on the dollar and have your book tied up for years, but the best it can do on the print royalties is say (paraphrasing) "maybe it's better, maybe it's worse" when I suspect the typical author will see a considerable reduction.  It tells us that the 50/50 split on audio and second serial rights which you relinquish is industry standard, but it doesn't say with similar clarity that you are giving up control and one-half of potentially valuable rights in order to get your royalties currently owed. SFWA is right to add the "talk to your agent" disclaimers, but why in this instance vs. almost every other instance is SFWA not informing its members regarding the best right questions to ask when having those discussions.

Another example:

The secret SFWA e-mail says "The branch of [Start] involved here is the publishing subsidiary, headed by Jarred Weisfeld. They indicate they are acquiring Night Shade’s assets specifically because the owner of Start has a passion for science-fiction and wants to be in this genre."  Wouldn't it be preferable for SFWA to ask about and actually identify the owner of Start, instead of only telling us about the mystery owner's passion for sf?  Is SFWA aware that Jarred Weisfeld is also a principal in a literary agency, Objective Entertainment, and is this information that SFWA might wish to provide?  As another example, if you look at the books from Start Publishing that are for sale on Kobo, it appears that their current publishing program is public domain work.

With regard to Skyhorse, the sf/fantasy genre isn't currently represented on the company's website.

None of these things are, prima facie, bad things.  Perhaps: (a) The mysterious owner of Start has been practicing with public domain waiting for a moment like this to have a strong list of copyrighted titles.  (b) The owners of Skyhorse recognize the sf/f genre is an important one where they need a presence and have a plan for entering the genre successfully.  (c) The objections in the sf/f community to having literary agents as publishers have died down for good reason in the 30 years since SFWA objected to having Scott Meredith run an sf/f program for Baen Books, and Richard Curtis has run eReads for many years now.

But why is SFWA leaving me to do the research?  Why aren't they informing authors of relevant facts so authors can make good decisions in consultation with their agents, representatives and IP attorneys?

Since SFWA was aware of the process, does SFWA know if Night Shade was approached by these two companies, or if Night Shade did a vigorous search for other buyers before concluding that these two companies were the best or only alternative to bankruptcy?  Does SFWA know why Skyhorse and Start are splitting the assets, when Skyhorse can publish the e-books itself?  There might be details that would violate confidentiality, like other potential buyers who kicked the tires on the Night Shade car, but total silence leaves me queasy.  If you've ever read a formal SEC filing from a company asking for merger approval, it includes a history.  Written by management, likely self-serving, but with this kind of information presented.

I'm not a big fan of this deal.  But I have tried in this blog post not just to rail against it.  Rather, I'm trying to suggest questions we deserve answers to, either collectively or to grapple with in making our individual decisions. How rigorous a sale process was there?  If bankruptcy puts us at the back of the line, how long is the line?  What is the value of receiving my current royalties in full vs. the reduction in my future royalties, or the value of my current royalties against having full control of my audio rights?  If such a thing could be found would it be better to have a buyer purchase the whole company instead of select assets, even if it meant secure royalties moving forward but a hit on current royalties owed, rather than getting all royalties owed today in exchange for future concessions?

Last but not least, to what extent should my decision on the deal itself be influenced by the structure of the arrangement, the effect it has on the community of sf/f authors as whole?

AN UPDATE:

Jeremy Lassen, one of the partners in Night Shade, has replied to critics of the deal.  You can find that via Charlie Jane Anders at io9.  Jeremy's main argument is this.  "This deal is the last chance I have to keep my promise. This is the last chance I have to make sure that ALL OF MY AUTHORS GET PAID ALL OF THE MONEY THEY ARE OWED. Right now the deal is in the hands of the individual authors, and their agents. I am asking you. Please. Sign off on this deal. Help me make sure all my authors get paid."

One comment I will make:  You can't be so fixated on one specific goal in life that you lose track of the big picture.  The goal of Night Shade here is admirable.  Who wouldn't want every Night Shade author to get the royalties they are owed.  But as I've discussed above, every author needs to evaluate the benefits of getting paid what they are owed today against the costs of this tomorrow.

FURTHER READING:

This post by literary agent Andrew Zack fills in, very nicely, some gaps in my own post.  He knows the people at Skyhorse better than I, and asks directly why, when as he puts it:

In a sense, this entire deal seems to me to be:

Bottom-feeding
Extortionist
I recognize that these are terms that both publishers might find offensive, but surely they must understand how offensive this deal is to the authors involved.

the publisher doesn't want to step up to the plate and be proactive in making people feel more comfortable.

And something Jeremy Lassen would disagree with, also in Andrew's post:

The fact that they want to change the contracts and get extra rights seems to me an attempt to ensure they have jobs when this all gets wrapped up, but if authors are going to lose money in the form of lower royalties and new rights granted, shouldn't these guys lose something, too?  Where is their skin in this game?  If this all goes through, they are in a better-than-ever situation, it seems:  free of the burdens of administration, free of debt, employed, and walking tall.  That hardly seems fair, does it?