Publishing's hidden virtues

My latest Publishers Weekly column is "Publishing's Virtue," a look at the relative moral uprightness of trade publishing, especially when compared to the record labels and movie studios, with their just reputation as rapacious crooks who rip off artists at every turn. if you're trying to convince Internet users to buy instead of pirate because they'll support the artists by doing so, it would be a good idea to mention the fact that your industry actually pays its creators, unlike the balance-sheet fiddlers in Big Music and Big Movies.

Yes, making the case against illegal downloading can be hard graft. So, without quality, price, convenience, or the threat of punishment, how can publishers convince people to do the right thing and buy? Basically, with an appeal to decency: you should buy our goods because it's the right thing to do.

It sounds too simple, but it can be effective. No matter how many worthy people support their families with corporate paychecks, corporations in the age of Citizens United and Occupy Wall Street make poor poster children for a sympathy campaign—and audiences are especially suspect of corporations that operate in the arts. Record labels, movie studios, and, yes, publishers, too, are commonly viewed as rapacious scoundrels that prey on artists, exploit a stranglehold on distribution, and force content owners into abusive contractual relationships.

But trade publishing is different, especially when it comes to fiction. Unlike musicians, we novelists give limited licenses to our publishers, licenses that we can terminate if the publisher doesn't actually get our creations into retail channels. If a song isn't available for download, it's often the case that some record company owns the rights and can't be bothered to do anything with it. If you can't get a book it's usually because no one wants to publish it, not because some faceless corporate bean-counter has decided to sit on the rights.

And unlike musicians, authors are not commonly charged for production expenses. A recording contract typically requires musicians to sell enough to pay for all the production, publicity, and marketing before they see a penny in royalties. In publishing, the publisher pays these expenses out of its pocket, and the author isn't expected to pay it back.

Finally, authors' advances are (usually) only charged to their current books, or sometimes across a single deal. Unlike musicians, who are often required to pay back shortfalls from their last project before they can start earning on their latest one, authors' balance sheets are zeroed out with each new book. If your last book tanks, your next book usually doesn't have to pay back its advance. Publishing doesn't do debt slavery.

Publishing's Virtue