Ask The Editor

October 25, 2009

How Demand Studios’ exploitation of writers turned it into a billion dollar company

Wired has a fascinating article about Demand Studios, one of the word factories that regularly advertises for writers, only to exploit them. You can’t claim Demand pays writers peanuts. It’s more like peanut husks.

It’s worth reading the article to learn how this sweatshop-type operation makes such big bucks. But here, we’re only concerned with the pennies it pays to the people who made it possible for Demand to become the billion-dollar enterprise it now is. The snippet below provides a hint:

It’s the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot. Writers can typically select 10 articles at a time; videographers can hoard 40.

Nearly every freelancer scrambles to load their assignment queue with titles they can produce quickly and with the least amount of effort — because pay for individual stories is so lousy, only a high-speed, high-volume approach will work. The average writer earns $15 per article for pieces that top out at a few hundred words, and the average filmmaker about $20 per clip, paid weekly via PayPal. Demand also offers revenue sharing on some articles, though it can take months to reach even $15 in such payments. Other freelancers sign up for the chance to copyedit ($2.50 an article), fact-check ($1 an article), approve the quality of a film (25 to 50 cents a video), transcribe ($1 to $2 per video), or offer up their expertise to be quoted or filmed (free). Title proofers get 8 cents a headline.

Don’t write for these — or any — exploiters. Leave these crumbs for the amateurs. I know it’s tempting, as newspapers die, and magazines fight for survival, to take whatever work is available. But writers who do so help perpetuate their own exploitation.

Write a book, instead. Either shop it to agents and publishers or invest in publishing and marketing it yourself. There are plenty of new publishing opportunities to explore, from the Espresso Book Machine which is rolling out a few new locations and may soon make the printing of a single book as cost-effective as printing in bulk, to ebooks, which already eliminate the costs of distribution, warehousing and shipping.

– Anita Bartholomew

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September 17, 2009

Publishing at the crossroads: who will own the future, you or Google?

I’ve written before that I believe the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) from On Demand Books,  could be a publishing industry game-changer, as much and even more so than the advent of ebooks. Although the EBM is only in 10 locations now, the wide distribution of EBMs or other machines like them, would allow authors, with new or out-of-print books, to publish their own work, at lower costs than are now generally available from POD printers. Because the books get published at the bookseller’s site, the author-publisher isn’t saddled with the significant costs of warehousing, shipping and distribution.

And returns? That would be a store-by-store policy issue but here, too, the savings to the author-publisher would be significant. If a store with an EBM permitted returns, the author-publisher might have to bear those costs. But the author-publisher would be spared the expense of refunds and two-way shipping on unsold  books that were published sans demand, and then removed from the shelf and returned when demand failed to catch up to supply.

The lower overhead opens up all sorts of possibilities and Google is now showing us that the game could go either way for those who want to breathe new life into their old books.

A story today in Wired says that Google is going to offer public domain (out-of-copyright) books via the Espresso Book Machine:

Over the last seven years, Google has scanned millions of dusty tomes from deep in the stacks of the nation’s leading university libraries and turned them into searchable documents available anywhere in the world through its search box.

And now Google Book Search, in partnership with On Demand Books, is letting readers turn those digital copies back into paper copies, individually printed by bookstores around the world.

Or at least by those booksellers that have ordered its $100,000 Espresso Book Machine, which cranks out a 300 page gray-scale book with a color cover in about 4 minutes, at a cost to the bookstore of about $3 for materials. The machine prints the pages, binds them together perfectly, and then cuts the book to size and then dumps a book out, literally hot off the press, with a satisfying clunk. (The company says a machine can print about 60,000 books a year.)

Two issues the story doesn’t address give us the clues to what makes this so technology so important to those of us who make our living by the written word:
The possibility for POD editions had been treated as a “maybe someday” clause in the Google settlement. Someday is here, it seems, the moment the settlement gets the judge’s thumbs-up (if it does). Assuming the same pricing structure as the out-of-copyright books, Google gets a dollar, and passes along 63 cents to the Book Rights Registry (BRR). The BRR passes along to publishers what’s left after taking its unknown cut. Publishers pass along to authors — what? Maybe 10 to 25 cents per book sold?

Contrast that to what an enterprising author might get by republishing her or his own out-of-print book and offering it via the EBM. Costs to print via the Espresso Book Machine are just $3 in materials plus whatever the bookseller adds for profit and the cost of amortizing the EBM owner’s investment in the machine. But on the author-publisher’s side, when you consider eliminating the costs of warehousing, shipping, distributors and returns, you’re likely to be about where you’d be with a traditionally published book with one enormous difference. You’ve removed the uncertainty factor that drives costs to unknown, profit-killing levels and keeps so many would-be author-publishers from going it alone.

When you’re no longer working on the crazy model of providing books on consignment and assuming all financial risks, you might actually be able to run a profitable business as an author-publisher.

Can you say the same is anywhere near possible if your books are coming out of the same Espresso Book Machine but the money goes to Google instead?

– Anita Bartholomew

August 5, 2009

Why writers shouldn’t bet their careers on magazine writing, part II

Article fees are stagnating at best. Numerous magazines have lowered their per-word rates. I hear reports all the time from  writers that magazines assign an article at, say, 1,000 words but demand extra reporting that can require the writer to up the submitted word count by 50 percent or more, with no extra pay.

Writers, brace yourselves. This is your future if you continue to bank on magazines. Magazines were hurting before the economic downturn and you can’t assume that the situation will reverse once the economy stabilizes. See this article from Min on the prospects for consumer magazines — or simply read the following sobering excerpt:

Magazines did not come into the recession from a position of strength, with a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] at a meager 1.1% from 2003 to 2008.

Virtually all of the main revenue drivers for this industry are being depressed by a shifting media economy and digitization, such that magazine advertising will decline 15.6% in 2009 to $10.53 billion and a [Compound Annual Growth Rate] of -6.6% for the 2008-2013 period. This will leave the ad spend on magazines at $8.87 billion in 2013, the lowest level since 1995.

Ever-shrinking ad revenues mean that articles fees must also continue to shrink.

And for those who say, “no problem, I’ll write for the web,” I have to ask: haven’t you noticed that most websites pay less than even the struggling magazines? While some web publications pay at least something, too many are paying so little, the fee offered is an insult. And you can’t pay your bills with the proceeds  of insultingly low fees no matter how quickly you write.

So, what’s left?

My guess is that the writers who continue to make a living from writing will be writing books. Some will get traditional publishers. Some will publish their own books as book publishers also tighten their budgets.

The Espresso Book Machine, or something like it, if it catches on, will make any bookstore that has one a print-on-demand center. That will make it possible for good writers to become publishers without the overhead of warehousing and shipping, and with a lower per-book printing cost than current POD options. But only those who master marketing and publicity will earn enough to make a living.

I know this isn’t a cheery post but I read too many cheery proclamations from writers who keep doing what they’ve been doing while their incomes shrink. We all need to think ahead, not just to the end of the year but to five years from now. Where will publishing be? And where will you be in publishing?

– Anita Bartholomew

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