Thursday, December 06, 2007

Unions, Anyone?

I suspect that this post is one of those posts that are generally not spoken of in writing circles. Leastways, not the circles I run in. But you know me, what passes through my mind comes out my mouth or fingers, one or the other.

The other day I blathered about the price of principles.

And today I’m wondering about unions. Talk about a high price. Have you ever been around a strike? Where the union workers are starving, their families are hurting, and they have to decide whether to "cross the picket line" and go back to work to feed their family, or stick by their union and their principles?

For a man or woman at that income level to have to go for weeks and months without pay is ... nearly unfathomable. (And in times past, crossing the picket line could be risking your life.)

But the price today, if they cross that picket line, is that when the strike is settled, they’re likely out of a job.

And the "social price" is they’ve let down their fellow workers. They’ve weakened the power of the union, and by weakening the power of the union, they’re personally responsible for their fellow works making less pay and/or receiving less benefits.

Novelists, as far as I can tell, have no such power, no such ramifications ... no such guild?

What I don’t hear us writers talk about is our social responsibility when it comes to signing a contract. And I’m looking at these contracts that I signed as a newbie who knew jack-shit and am wondering if I should have been negotiating certain points.

On the other hand, what negotiation power do I have? I’m already paid the top of what my little publisher pays, and there are TONS of writers who are willing to write for a third of what I write for. For less than that, even.

So where does that leave me? Where does social responsibility end and self-preservation start?

I heard a NY writer say they’re happy with 8% royalties for ebooks. I cringed, because I really don’t like that. Not when the book costs nothing to distribute, print, ship, etc. I understand you still have to pay for cover art, overhead, editors and all that work, but E-publishers generally pay between 20 - 45%, 20% being on the LOW end. (Only one e-publisher I know pays that, and they were in the print market for years, first. NY has the same problem, only worse.)

Eventually, we will be heading into more e-markets. That’s why the Writer’s Guild is striking now: to ensure the future of e-rights. (I didn’t say that right; you know what I meant, though, right?)

Some say, why strike now when it won’t matter for X years? I say, because now is the time. Once they’re getting the money, they’re not going to let it go without you having to give up something else. Why do you think the studios are fighting it? They know where the future is going.

The power to change things for us writers rests with those writers at the top of their genres. And why would they fight? They’re getting paid well. They’re happy with the arrangement, and why shouldn’t they be?

I would like to hear writers talk more about our responsibilities to each other.

Of course, then you’ve got writers who will PAY to be published. I believe I’m starting to understand why there is such animosity for the self-published. (I don’t agree with the animosity, at least not yet.) The Writer’s Guild screenwriters don’t have "self-publishing," do they?

So where does that leave novel and story writers? Each man for himself? It’s true, we help each other out a lot when it comes to writing and navigating the path, but what about the nitty-gritty? What about the money?

When someone who wants to write for my publisher asks me how much I get paid, what do I say? We writers are notorious for not sharing that information. I regret that I once didn’t share it, mostly because my publisher said "don’t tell anyone else if I agree to this rate." I feel that was a wrong decision on my part (although I did guide the writing friend to ask for the highest price I knew she could get). That writer didn’t end up writing for my publisher, and no one else has asked, so I didn’t have to test my principles again. But ... I made the deal of silence, so it’s out of my hands now. But I didn’t consider my responsibility to other writers, at the time.

In the music world, we share that information. I was clearly told "don’t ever teach for less than X; never play a gig for less than Y; never play a solo recital for less than Z."

So then what power does that leave writers? We must either increase demand for our work to give us more negotiating power, or find alternate publishing paths. But that leads us back to self-publishing ...

Maybe, someday, e-publishers will save us. If they don’t start following NY standards and dropping royalty rates to 8%. Scary thought, that.

I have no conclusions, only questions. What a difficult freakin’ business to navigate, sometimes. No wonder people complain.

Do you have any answers? Any thoughts? What don’t I know?

Heck, I’m turning my business mind off. This is why writers get agents, isn’t it? I’d rather escape to my writing... anyways, it all comes back to write better than the obstacle, doesn’t it?

7 bonus scribbles:

StarvingWriteNow 12/06/2007 11:15:00 AM  

If my accountant sweetie was here he'd pontificate on supply and demand until midnight. And unions too, until you were tearing your hair out!

I think novelists definitely are in that S & D category. If you've got what they want, they'll pay you for it--but only to a certain point.

It's like walking a tightrope. Don't place too high a price on yourself, but don't sell yourself short, either.

In the end, it's just complicated.

J.K. Mahal 12/06/2007 12:35:00 PM  

>>The power to change things for us writers rests with those writers at the top of their genres. And why would they fight? They’re getting paid well. They’re happy with the arrangement, and why shouldn’t they be?

That's been one of the wonderful things about watching the WGA strike, The writers at the top -- the showrunners like Joss Whedon, Carleton Cuse and Shonda Rhimes -- ARE fighting. Because they believe in the cause and because they know that if this fight for rights in a digital age isn't done now, the companies will roll right over them.

It's strange to think of novelists as luckier than screenwriters, but actually, at least there's the possibility of payment (no matter how low) every time your book is bought.

I got no answers. Just a lot of respect and support for those walking the lines.

spyscribbler 12/06/2007 07:47:00 PM  

I'd love to hear him pontificate, Writenow! They are fascinating, complex subjects. Complicated is right.

J.K., you are right about that. The support for the writer's strike has been phenomenal, and I think something like 98% of the membership voted for the strike. Wow!

Am I wrong, but I think that screenwriters get paid when their screenplay is optioned? They get much more if it's made into a movie, but I believe they get paid when their screenplay is bought, either way. I'm no expert, though, LOL ...

J.K. Mahal 12/06/2007 08:29:00 PM  

Yes, they get paid if their screenplay is optioned and again when/if it's made. The option price is usually about 10% of what a first draft price is. Guild minimums on options range from $5100 to $9700... and many screenwriters make closer to minimum than not.

But they get very little when it's bought on DVD (4 cents), nothing when it's bought on iTunes and nothing if it's screened online.

Television writers are in the same boat, but without the "option" money.

Novel writers get paid every time their books are bought. While they don't get paid for used books, that's such a small market compared to the one for DVD/iTunes.

And just like novelists, it can be years between scripts sold. Plus their work gets tinkered with by everyone (directors, actors, film editors), not just the publishing company.

That's why I think novelists are luckier.

spyscribbler 12/06/2007 10:46:00 PM  

J.K., now I see what you mean. I didn't get you meant bought as in readers and not bought as in publishing company/studio.

I really hope the writer's guild can change that.

Edie 12/07/2007 12:51:00 AM  

This is the 2nd time this week that I've read a blog about the screenwriters having a strong union and other writers (us) not banding together to guard their rights.

I'd gladly band together with other writers on this.

Bernita 12/07/2007 07:18:00 AM  

Interesting topic.
And very complicated.