Thursday 8 January 2015

Why authors aren't employees and need to cover themselves

Triggered by a post here by the awesome Angel Martinez, I'm just going to babble on a bit about how and why authors are neither freelancer/contractors nor employees.

I'm aware I'm talking about employment as practiced in the more enlightened parts of Europe, namely the ones with strong unions or work force protection laws. I'm aware that the case as outlined further down doesn't apply everywhere in Europe. For example, the UK has the infamous "zero-hour" contracts, Germany has or had unpaid internships, and I'm definitely speaking about benefits I received in decidedly white-collar professions in a sector flush with money. Outside of it, different rules apply, but the gist remains intact.

Some authors think of themselves as the employees of publishers. Some seasoned authors consider themselves "a [publishing house] author". I see relative or total newbies take pride in defining themselves that way. Defining ourselves gives us a sense of security, of "that's it, decision made, no more anxiety". I see the point, but I think people are deluding themselves if they go so far as consider themselves "employees".

In my neck of the woods, an employee gets a guaranteed salary (you might get a basic and a bonus/commission), and a lot of them get some kind of benefits: The UK has now auto-enrolled workers into a pension scheme (at 3% it's puny, but it's there); employees, more often than not, work at employers' premises (telecommuting is either a benefit or for temps/contractors). Employees get paid time off. Many/most employees get company-sponsored life/health insurance, pension, sick days. None of that for authors.

Authors also don't get a minimum wage – considering the payout of my books, I’ve made anywhere between $1.50/hour to $400/hour (yes, the latter shocked me too and is an aberration, though a nice one). I’d never take a real-life job where I’m not guaranteed a minimum wage on an hourly or project basis. If I get paid on a project basis (done it as a student), I know exactly how many hours it'll take me. Books I can't possibly project that way. Some are a few hundred, others a few thousand hours, depending on research. (Also, shorts and novellas are faster.)

So, authors most definitely aren't employees, and we're not even freelancers or contractors – a freelancer negotiates their fees beforehand. I’ve seen novels worked on for years pay out basically zero – they’re DOA. The only time I’ve seen contractor-like terms was when I wrote roleplaying novels pretty much “for hire”, meaning I got an advance/one-time payment and gave away all my rights for practically ever. They never earned out and I walked away with maybe EUR 5/hour payout - I'd have made more making sandwiches at a gas station or working security in a concert/event hall (EUR 7 and EUR 11 per hour, respectively).

So, yes, our position is far worse than that of any contractor/employee. In addition, a lapse in productivity (writers’ block, health issues, computer crash) means you might end up not eating/paying rent/mortgage. At least at a day job, you get medical leave or therapy/support. Several placed I worked for had therapy hotlines for stuff like burnout and a support network in place. (Yes, that was financial services - you don't want a suicidal/burned-out trader going crazy on the markets.)

These very restrictions of the "author job" obviously mean that we need to stay nimble and smart. It absolutely means to protect yourself like a lion/ess, especially your rights. Getting a working knowledge of contracts (“What’s life of copyright and why is it the worst thing I can sign?”, “Are they paying royalties based on net or gross?”, “What does the Right of First Refusal mean?” etc) is vital. It’s not fun, but I’ve signed every awful contract somebody offered me and these days I negotiate ALWAYS. My work is my only source of income at the moment. I need to get paid fairly or can't sustain my position.

In the new landscape, the hybrid model is absolutely doable. I'm doing it. It's an accepted way to get books to market, as most readers seem to buy books by author or genre/subject (“gay dragons”, “romantic suspense”) rather than by any other criterion, though the problem is financial. Editing/cover/proofing is expensive, so in my case, I’m going hybrid on works that don’t fit into narrow little genre boxes (Return on Investment was rejected by every publisher I sent it to, but I believed in the book and took a punt on it, and it worked out fine). I consider myself more an entrepreneur than and employee/contractor - the risk is really pretty much all mine. If a book I write bombs, that's my risk - I put in the hours, and I'm paying an "opportunity cost", which means the money I've lost by now working on stuff that does sell/pay out. Going with a publisher means you spread the risk - the publisher can lose its investment in bringing the book to market, and the author might not get paid. As a self-publisher, you take that whole risk on yourself.

Personally, I’m planning to self-publish books in the future that don’t have romances, and I’m possibly opening up “straight” fiction or fiction without any sex or queer content, because I have those bunnies, too, and these days, I can write those books without having to lock them away in a drawer because "my publisher/s won't buy them."

At the very least, we've been released from the “little boxes”, which I personally consider the biggest boon of the new paradigm. You can write “weird” books that likely won’t be bestsellers, but will still find their couple hundred readers, which makes releasing them financially viable. And who knows, you might be wrong, and people end up buying the weird book in larger quantities than you'd have expected. Publishing is full of surprises.

What's absolutely important for self-publishers is to look at distribution. By looking at my sales numbers for Return on Investment, I worked out that Kindle’s exclusivity is actually a bad deal for me. Come February, I’m going wide with distribution via Draft2Digital.

I was all right with Kindle Unlimited when the payout was closer to $2 per borrowed copy, but by now it’s dropped to $1.36 – on a book where I make $4.11 per sold copy. (Getting into Oyster/Scribd means I get paid full whack when people choose to borrow my book). the KU borrows cannibalise my sales. As long as Amazon doesn’t pay me full royalty like other players do, I’m not staying exclusive with them – there’s something fundamentally wrong about learning a month later how much you’ll get paid, and that number getting smaller every month. That's much worse than contracting, it feels like begging for whatever scraps Bezos is throwing your way.

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