Writers beware: read the small print

24 April 2008

There was an advert in Metro last week that read:
We are looking for brilliant new writers to submit entries for our first series of short novels and novellas. Deadline: June 1
Adverts seeking 'new writers' are not uncommon - they are typically placed by organisations that sell a publishing service and charge authors to put their books into print. There's not usually any marketing of the title because the company makes its money off printing books and selling them to authors in bulk, and not off selling them to the general public.

The website behind this ad is Roastbooks. From the limited details online, the company's model is to market books through unconventional outlets (eg cafes, airport lounges). White Ladder Press is among the companies pioneering this approach (see The White Ladder Diaries, an entertaining and informative book about setting up a self-publishing operation, which rather unfortunately stops before the operation generates any profit).

I know many people are desperate to get into print, but Roastbooks' terms and conditions are hopelessly optimistic. There's no mention of any advance or royalty rates, but by entering the competition, authors are expected to grant the publisher 'the sole, exclusive option, until two months after the publication of the results of this competition, to enter into a publishing agreement in respect of the submitted manuscript'. I'm not a lawyer, but the language appears to suggest the option belongs to Roastbooks and authors submitting work are basically stuck with the contract the publisher chooses to foist upon them. There's no clause for the rights to revert to the author if the competition results are never announced, or are announced late, either. Roastbooks makes no commitment to a print run, or to any other media, but does require all rights worldwide.

We've seen publishers engaging in rights grabs over the last ten years, but usually from a position of strength. For a new publisher to expect authors to hand over exclusive rights for no return (not even the promise to publish the novel) is highly irregular. The publisher is candid enough to admit that it won't be able to get books into high street book shops, and it's a lot easier for authors to self-publish than it used to be. It's not clear what Roastbooks is doing for the author that the author could not more profitably do for him- or herself.

Few good writers will want to work with an untested publisher that doesn't appear to respect their rights. For that reason, I can't see a future for the company. New publishers would do well to see authors as potential business partners rather than raw materials.

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Amazon Kindle: an opportunity for self-publishers?

15 April 2008

I blogged about Amazon's Kindle, a new ebook reader, when it launched. But I didn't look at the opportunity for self-publishers then.

I've published a few ebooks in the past. My ebook 'Journalism Careers - Your questions answered' is sold as a PDF file designed for comfortable on-screen reading. I previously published a guide to putting sound in webpages and a Javascript tutorial through Fatbrain, which was an online ebook store. That folded years ago, and it looks like Barnes & Noble has bought the domain name.

So what's the opportunity at Kindle? Not much for me, it seems. You need to have a US postal address and US bank account details before they will let you publish any content. You can't even publish content for free and use Kindle as a promotional outlet (ebooks must be priced between $0.99 and $200, and you still need to be in the US). Given how slow Amazon's been in internationalising other features like Amazon Honor System, none of that is likely to change any time soon.

My friend John went through the motions of setting up a publication anyway, and has blogged about that experience.

There are a couple of terms that might worry some self-publishers. Firstly:
3. Digital Books; Marketing and Promotion. You agree that we may market and promote your Digital Books by making chapters or portions of your Titles available to prospective customers without charge, and permitting prospective customers to see excerpts of the Digital Book in response to search queries. Amazon will not owe you any fees for the marketing and promotional efforts described above. The Program may include features that allow users to print one or more pages of your Titles.
The short version of that is: Amazon can distribute content from the book and allow users to print it, without charging for it and without paying you for it.

The 'permission to print' seems to go beyond the deal Amazon's already struck for 'Search inside this book' for promoting printed books on its website. It's essential for authors to give away some preview content to demonstrate the value of their books. Indeed, similar terms are usually a part of a conventional publishing contract. But Amazon's a shop, not a publisher. Authors and publishers should decide what material is promotional, and what material is only available for sale. Amazon wants the right to give away whatever content it wants, albeit with the implied motive that it will try to pick content that will help the book sell.

For reference works, the value could be significantly eroded if Amazon allows excerpts to be printed without any payment. We can only hope that Amazon is working on a way of administering micropayments so that people can buy book excerpts and authors can be rewarded appropriately.

Also, Amazon will keep 65% of the retail price. By comparison, Lulu charges a fee of 25% of what you get (which is then added to the sale price, so it's actually less than 25% of the ebook price). If you're a self-publisher, 35% is probably not too bad a return given that there's no work to do with moving printed books and there's no cost to incur in creating them, but it's far from competitive. It also seems to overstate the costs incurred in operating the infrastructure and underestimate the costs involved in creating content.
10. Technology. You acknowledge that we will be entitled to utilize DRM technology in connection with the distribution of Digital Books but are not obligated to do so. Accordingly, there may be no technology or other limitation imposed by us on copying or transfer of any Digital Book we distribute.
Personally, I don't approve of digital rights management technology. But when publishers are selling ebooks, they'll want to know what rights they're licensing and what controls will be used to enforce them and this term seems somewhat vague. There 'might or might not be DRM' isn't really a good basis for making a decision about whether you want to sell through Amazon, particularly if piracy or consumer rights is something you feel strongly about.

The use of the words 'irrevocable licence' set off alarm bells, but it seems this is about protecting consumers and ensuring that they will be able to download content they've bought easily in future. The irrevocable licence does not extend to making the ebook available for sale (so you can withdraw it later).

If anyone's actually self-publishing through Amazon Kindle, I'd be interested in hearing about your results in the comments.

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Test your vocabulary and feed the world

08 April 2008

This vocabulary quiz will test the most avid readers or writers to their limits. It starts easy, but it soon gets tough.

It looks like you have to answer three vocabulary questions correctly in a row to go up a level, and if you get one wrong, you drop down again. The answers are too short to properly teach you new words, but you can always look up any intriguing words you don't know. An integrated dictionary link would be a nice addition.

The twist with this is that for every round you play, you generate a donation of 20 grains of rice. The site is operated as a non-profit and the money that advertisers pay to show their ads with each quiz round is used to donate free rice to the United Nations World Food Programme.

It's an interesting extension of the Hunger Site's principle, where instead of just clicking each day, you can play a game and spend more time there to increase your donation. And from a business point of view, it's probably more robust because the intelligence required to consistently answer questions should help screen out fraudulent clicks. I wonder whether the adverts are targeted according to how smart you appear to be..?

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