From the President's Desk

Paper Money

By Minda Zetlin | From the May 2013 Issue

I am so over paper.

Given a choice, I prefer to read a book or magazine on my tablet. I’ve heard all the arguments from my fellow ASJA members about how nothing can replace books and how the loss of the physical book is a sad, sad thing, but I disagree. I love curling up in a comfy chair with a good book as much as anyone, and it works just as well if the book is in an e-reader or tablet. Plus, there’s the coziness of reading in bed with the lights off right before dropping off to sleep, something that’s awkward at best with a paper book.

There are practical advantages to electronic reading that are hard to deny. Who was the character just mentioned and whose name is familiar, but whom I no longer recall? I can do a search and instantly be reminded. I have a pretty big vocabulary, but every now and then I hit on a word I don’t know. In a second or two, I can do a dictionary or Web search.

Then there are the limitations that physical books have and ebooks don’t. When I read the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs, with its descriptions of his legendary speeches at MacWorld over the years, I’d close my ebook app, open my YouTube app, and watch the speech Isaacson was referring to. At least one author I know is augmenting her book with video so readers can watch the actual speech—a great idea we’ll see more and more.

And then there’s the way e-readers have opened up the market to things that would otherwise languish unpublished. Out-of-print books can easily see new life. That awkward length between 8,000 and 40,000 words—too long for a magazine, not long enough for a book—can now be published as a short ebook.

Yup, I’m definitely over paper.

The writer’s viewpoint

Up to this point, I’ve been speaking as a reader. As a writer, the picture is very different, unfortunately, because for the moment, we seem to be stuck with the following equation: paper = money.

Take, for example, book publishing royalties. Traditional publishers have established 25-percent as the industry standard for ebook royalties. On its website, the Authors Guild posted a carefully researched explanation of why that standard is yet another way of screwing writers. Their calculations clearly showed how authors make substantially less on each ebook sale than they do on each paper sale, while the publisher makes substantially more.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, an author I know tells me he had to fight for the 25 percent—his publisher tried to stick him with less. And in their recent settlement with Google, many publishers gave away the right to publish electronic books, at least via Google’s book search, without paying authors one penny for those rights. (For more on that, see the November 2012 President’s Letter.) Considering all this, Google’s recent decision to kill the print version of Frommer’s guides and sell them only as ebooks looks like yet another attack by this $260 billion corporation against the writing community. And so writers everywhere cheered when 83-year-old Arthur Frommer magically appeared to reclaim the imprint. He plans to continue publishing both e-books and print books.

On the periodical side, relative payments for pixels vs. print is even worse, as anyone knows who’s written for both a paper publication and its website. In my case, moving from the online to the print version meant per-word rates that were at least quadrupled, along with a lengthy pitching process followed by careful editing and multiple drafts.

On the website side, there was no fact-checking, interviews were few or nonexistent, and nearly all my pitches were immediately approved. And when I talked to sources for the website, they often asked, with hope in their voices: “Will this be in the magazine too?”

The lesson is clear: In this world where more and more people are choosing to read electronically, paper publication means higher standards, greater prestige, and more money. Recently, a disgruntled freelancer named Nate Thayer posted on his blog his correspondence with an editor at the The Atlantic’s website. The editor wanted him to “repurpose” one of his articles for the site. “We unfortunately can’t pay you for it,” she added. It’s worth noting that, in 2012, the company reportedly turned a profit for the third year in a row, thanks to that website, where readership is up 45-percent and revenues are up 33-percent. Why such a money-making venture can’t afford to pay writers is a mystery to me. Maybe I should ask Arianna Huffington.

Some writers have responded to all this with the view that digital equals evil, and that we should fight for paper as long and hard as we can. But that reminds me of the folks I’ve read about in the 1920s who fought against the telephone for fear it would kill the neighborly habit of dropping by. As a matter of fact, it did kill the neighborly habit of dropping by, but that seems as quaint to us now as a world without telephones.

Here I go, back to being a reader. I find e-reading more appealing than paper reading, and the rapid growth of ebook sales proves I’m not the only one. Like it or not, paper is in permanent decline. So, what’s a writer to do? The only thing we can do, both as individuals and as writers’ organizations, is make sure our clients take our digital rights as seriously as our paper ones, and make sure they pay us a living wage for website writing and for ebooks.

We have to make sure that as paper publishing dies, it doesn’t take with it the possiblity of earning one’s living as writer. It’s a battle we’ll need to fight over and over, one negotiation at a time. And there’s no one to fight it but us.

Minda Zetlin

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Minda Zetlin is president of ASJA, a columnist for the Inc. magazine website and author of several books, including The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don’t Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive (Prometheus Books, 2006), co-authored with her husband, Bill Pfleging. Connect with her on twitter at @MindaZetlin.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/EricaManfred Erica Manfred

    Good article Minda. i was tempted to call it a post, but it really is an article.

  • Jimm Budd

    A friend of mine gave me a book, “The Ghost Wars.” I then bought it on Kindle. Much easier to read and carry. But it also is nice having the actual book with its maps and other extras.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=536505972 Nancy Peske

    I still feel that micropayments and donations can be a part of how writers get paid in the new digital world. More than ever before, we have to think about adjunct products and services and what’s the right mix of giving away material for free and charging. We also have to remind people of the value of professional writers. Sometimes, if you just enlighten people, they will pay even if they don’t have to.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jerry.mctigue Jerry McTigue

    I am so over paper, too, Minda. And fed up with publishers sucking the life out of writers with ludicrously low and chronically delayed royalties. A Saudi publisher who printed one of my books in Arabic (a bad enough deal but something I wasn’t planning to do on my own) wanted to buy the ebook rights for 15% of net sales. The 15% is insulting as it is, but the “net” part opens it up deducting from my royalties anything they well please, including their lunches at the kasbah. No thanks.

    An ASJA member, I do the bulk of my reading, and a lot of my writing on my iPad. So much so, I invented a device called The ThiPad, which straps to your leg above the knee so you don’t have to tire out your arms holding up your device. Excuse the plug, but pure necessity was the mother of this invention and I think you and other writers might want to look into it at thipad.com. Thanks for the enlightening piece!

  • Nancy Shepherdson

    Sorry, ebooks leave me cold. Only turning one page at a time? Not being able to just flip to the end? Not knowing now much is left…when the page count includes sometimes copious endnotes? And then there’s the money for writers. (Yeah, what money?)