Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Real Future

Disoriented and a little confused. That's what I felt as the pre-Halloween snowstorm hit, accompanied by thunder, falling tree branches (hundreds of them in our tree happy little town) and the pop-pop-pop of exploding transformers. Oddly enough, I was feeling much the same way in the days leading up to the storm, though it had nothing to do with the treatening weather.
Two publishers had sent me contracts to turn seven of my published books into e-books. It felt nice that the books were going to be given a new life, but that pleasant feeling was undercut by the actual terms of the contracts. Each publisher had its own idea of what a fair share of the sales was and my agent made it clear that she thought neither was being particularly generous. And neither publisher would budge an inch from their position. It was a take it or leave it sort of deal. What to do? I could just turn them down and see what happened next, though that seemed like a drastic step. And I'm not the sort of person who does drastic things. So I put the contracts aside to think on them.
Then the storm hit and the branches rained down and confusion reined (I couldn't resist, sorry). On Monday I was looking through the Times at the numerous storm damage pieces when I came across an article about The Dover Bookstore on Earlham Street in London's Covent Garden. Now here was a story about a real bookstore with real books on the shelves with an owner named Mark Oddie (love that name!) and a regular stream of customers (enough to generate $1.25 million in sales in 2006). Okay, this bookstore sells "clip art" books put out by Dover Publications and not regular trade books. But they are books and The Dover Bookstore was still in business after twenty-five years. All was right in the world, I told myself. There was a center to the planet after all, something to hold onto during uncertain times. Until I neared the end of the article, that is.
That was when Mr. Oddie described his store as a "charitable operation" that made enough money to pay the bills, but little beyond that. My spirits drooped even more when I read that Mr. Oddie's lease will be up early next year and that Dover Publications is about to introduce direct downloads of images within a year. It seems that another bookstore will soon go the way of those exploding transformers. Pop!
I had hoped to read an article that would reasssure me, but instead came away even more disoriented. Which is when I turned back to those e-book contracts. My agent and I may not like the terms of the contracts, but they do represent the publishers' belief that the books have a future life. No one can define what that future will be, of course, but where there is a future there is hope. That's the sort of profession we're in. Every time we begin a new book we put our emotions on the line. We have no idea how the book will turn out (at least I don't) or whether our words will be well-received or even be in print after six months. But we do it anyway; we risk our happiness and piece of mind again and again, because we need to see where our ideas will lead, what might emerge from a simple idea.
So I signed all of the contracts, sent them off, and promptly banished thinking about them for now. No reason to occupy brain cells with needless, troublesome worry when a new project with new challenges is demanding immediate and focused attention. I will always love real books -- holding them, smelling them, hearing the binding crack as I turn the pages. And I'll always surround myself with books. Lots of them. But the real future, after all, isn't confined by form; the real future is in the words on the screen right in front of me.


Vicki Cobb said...

I'm very sorry to hear that you've signed your rights away, Jim. The future depends on branding--publishers who are true gatekeepers of excellence. Otherwise brands will be tarnished, according to Seth Godin as all kinds of junk is shoveled out into the marketplace. Ink is about to become a publisher, iNK Books & Media, for producing print-on-demand books and e-books in six platforms. Our brand will be excellence in children's nonfiction. There is a rights grab going on right now from traditional publishers who haven't yet figured out how to make $$ from our books. That's why they have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. I can assure you that the terms iNK Books & Media will offer authors will be a LOT more favorable to authors since it is an author-owned publishing company. You have my word on that.

Jim Murphy said...

Vicki -- Yes, I know what you're saying and totally appreciate it. The situations with both publishers were somewhat different. Scholastic already had general electronic rights; their contracts were to formalize terms and when asked to modify, they said no. They were going ahead with them even if I didn't sign (which would have meant an expensive legal fight if I wanted to challenge them and I'm in no position financially to do that right now). We did get a clause in the Clarion/Houghton Mifflin contracts that says the terms will be adjusted as the e-book terrain evolves, a curious "trust us" clause that I went along with because I do trust my editor at Clarion and know she'll fight for me. Odd, unsettling situations, but ones I tried to navigate carefully, though I have no doubt I won't be totally happy with the outcomes. As for INK Books, I am all for it and would like to participate (just as soon as I can figure out the rights issues for them, which isn't always crystal clear), and I trust you as much as I trust my Clarion editor. And I do still have almost 30 books un-e-booked, many of which have won awards and sold pretty well (and still sell). I felt it would be wise to move forward with these seven titles rather then challenge contracts and potentially create other distractions from the work at hand.