Friday, April 18, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- Words on WEbook (Or, Another Reason to Read the Fine Print)

Always on the lookout for strange new phenomena in the world of writing and publishing, I recently discovered a brand-new collaborative writing website called WEbook. WEbook describes itself as "an online publishing platform that allows writers, editors, reviewers, illustrators and others to join forces to create great works of fiction and non-fiction, thrillers and essays, short stories, children's books and more."

How does WEbook work? According to its FAQ page, writers can initiate public collaboration or anthology projects, to which anyone can contribute, Wiki-style. They can form groups for private collaborations, with a limited number of contributors. Or, if they' prefer to work alone, the WEbook platform can be used to produce a single author work. Completed books can then be opened up to the entire WEbook community for ratings, in order to "leverage the wisdom of the crowd to create, rate, and elevate the very best work..." At WEbook's discretion, those top-rated books may then be published.

I could go on about the tired cliches WEbook recycles (again from its FAQ page: "WEbook is the vision of a few occasionally erudite people who believe there are millions of talented writers whose work is ignored by the staid and exclusive world of book publishing"), or the dangers of putting too much trust in the Wiki model (remember Essjay, anyone?). I could discuss A Million Penguins, a wiki-novel sponsored as an experiment by Penguin UK that spiraled wildly out of control, or I could editorialize on my opinion that "the wisdom of crowds" is a contradiction in terms. Call me cynical, but I did my co-op time in the 1980's, and I don't have a lot of faith in collectives.

What I really want to talk about, though, is WEbook's Terms of Use.

According to section 5 of the Terms of Use, WEbook divides the creation of books into three stages: the writing stage (the time between a work being posted on the site and the work being opened up to public feedback or ratings; this stage includes a period of private feedback, where authors can invite selected members to review and comment); the public feedback stage (in which a work is opened up for review and comment by all WEbook members); and the ratings stage (in which the work is opened up to public rating by WEbook members for potential publication by WEbook).

During the writing/private feedback stage, authors "retain ownership of all copyrights in the Content authored by each author," and can remove their work from the site at any time. At the start of the public feedback or ratings stages, however, the author (if it's a single author work) or authors (if it's a collective work or an anthology) "immediately grants WEbook the Exclusive Option to Publish...as set forth in section 6 of this Agreement." Their ability to remove their work also becomes restricted.

What exactly does "Option to Publish" mean?

According to section 6, the option term begins when the work is opened up for public feedback, and ends 180 days after the ratings stage has concluded. During this time, WEbook can consider whether to publish the work. "Publish," as defined by section 6, means "publication of a Work or part of a Work in or as a book, an electronic book, a digital book, a magazine, a journal, a downloadable or electronically transferable file(s), an audio-book, online, a format that can be used with products such as Amazon's 'Kindle' or Sony's 'Reader' (or any device created in the future), and in any other manner that exists now or in the future that enables humans to read, hear, or view the Work."

In other words, nearly all book and serial publication rights, in all possible formats. And that's just the start. If WEbook decides to publish, the author or authors must "assign to WEbook all rights, title, and interest in and to the Content...as set forth in section 9.C of this Agreement."

All rights, title, and interest? Does that sound like a copyright grab to you? It sure does to me. Let's take a look at section 9.C (my bolding):

Member grants, transfers, assigns, and conveys to WEbook, its successors and assigns all worldwide, exclusive, and perpetual rights, title, interests, ownership, as well as all exclusive, perpetual, and worldwide subsidiary, derivative, renewal, termination, control, administrative, and transfer rights, in and to the Work/Content.

To enable WEbook to register, maintain, renew, extend, enforce, and protect its rights in the Work/Content, Member hereby irrevocably appoints WEbook its attorney-in-fact with all powers necessary to sign all such documents (including but not limited to the power of substitution). Member shall not at any time take any action contesting or in any way impairing or tending to impair any part of WEbook's exclusive, worldwide, and perpetual rights, title, and interests in and to the Work/Content.


Wow.

What do writers get for surrendering ownership of their work? According to section 7, a 5% net royalty. No, I did not mis-type that. WEbook pays a royalty of five percent of net. For collaborative works, this amount is pro-rated among contributors--which, depending on the number of contributors and the price of the book, could work out to pennies per author per book (and WEbook doesn't make a royalty payment until at least $50 is due). Single authors do somewhat better--they get to keep a whole 75% of their 5%. The remaining 25% goes to people who provided feedback, "based on WEbook's exclusive and discretionary evaluation of the significance and importance of [their] contributions."

Even PublishAmerica pays better than that.

But wait, we're not done yet. Remember those removal restrictions I mentioned? Prior to the public feedback stage, writers can remove their work from WEbook at will. Once the work has been opened to public feedback, however, and during WEbook's exclusive option term, removal is not allowed. Writers' right to removal returns once the option term has expired--but if they do remove the work, they must agree "in perpetuity to pay WEbook 2.5% of all monies received by Member from Member's sale, license, transfer, or other business transaction of the Content or subsidiary rights in the Content and/or deriving from the Content or subsidiary rights in the Content (including derivative works of the Content)." Essentially, writers must pay WEbook a kill fee if they ever sell an optioned work they removed from the site, or any part, adaptation, or sequel to it.

And we're still not done. WEbook retains "irrevocable" and "perpetual" archival rights to all content ever posted on the site, optioned or not, and "has no obligation to Member to disclose any aspect of how, where, and when WEbook exercises and employs the Archival License." So years from now, your work could still be online--but you'll have no way, other than Internet searching, of finding out where or how.

In my opinion, "rapacious" is not too strong a word for all of these provisions.

Writers using WEbook are not required to open up their work for public feedback. Those who don't will not have to worry about any of the above except for the archival license. A number of groups do seem to be using WEbook for non-publication-related activity: writing exercises, topic discussions, compiling material just for fun. But the lure of publication is strong, and this is certainly what will draw many of WEbook's users--and the site is clearly wooing such users by describing itself (as on its opening page) as an "avant-garde book publishing company [that] applies an interactive approach to the process - in every sense of the word - by using the Internet as a platform to connect truly brilliant writers to print publication."

Proving, yet again, the vital importance of carefully reading the fine print.

WEbook released its first collaborative novel in March. Pandora (currently without a sales ranking on Amazon.com, and apparently not available on Barnes&Noble.com) is described as "a riveting thriller, written by more than 30 writers and other contributors." Only 17 of these contributors appear on the book's cover (only "the most significant contributors" are so recognized, WEbook's FAQ explains). Ten other releases are apparently planned for 2008.

12 comments:

Victoria Strauss said...

The post was getting awfully long, so I'm doing this in comments instead of in the body of the post. I thought it might be fun to work out what royalties Pandora's authors might actually earn.

For collaborative works, the "project leader" gets a minimum of 50% of the royalty allocation. Other authors receive a pro rata share of 75% of the remaining 50%. The remaining 25% of the 50% is distributed among other contributors (such as people who provide public or private feedback) "based on WEbook's exclusive and discretionary evaluation of the significance and importance of [their] contributions."

Confused? Never mind, that's what I'm here for.

Pandora is priced at $13.99. The total royalty payable is 5% of net. Let's assume a non-discounted sale. That works out to a royalty of $0.70.

50% of the $0.70 goes to the project leader: $0.35.

75% of the remaining $0.35 goes to the co-authors. That's $0.26 to split between them. Let's assume that the co-authors are the 17 people named on Pandora's cover. Less the project leader, that's 16 people. 16 into $0.26 yields a royalty of $0.016.

I'm not going to bother breaking down the $0.09 (25% of $0.35) that goes to non-authors.

WEbook doesn't issue payment until at least $50 is due. (Actually, what they say is "No payment is due to Member for any calendar quarter in which the total amount due Member is less than Fifty Dollars ($50.00)." This sounds a lot like saying that if authors don't earn at least $50 in a given quarter, they forfeit payment, but I'm going to assume it simply means that payments will be accrued until the $50 threshold is reached.) So while Pandora's project leader will receive a check once 143 copies have sold, the other authors will have to wait for 3,125 sales before they are paid.

What's the likelihood of that sales level being achieved? According to WEbook's FAQ, WEbook books are available "at WEbook.com, Amazon.com, and select booksellers." This sounds to me like a lesser level of distribution than is provided by print-on-demand self-publishing services--and the average sale for a POD title is around 150 copies. My guess is that Pandora will do better, since WEbook site users who have bought into the concept may be more likely also to buy the book. Even so, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that co-authors are still waiting for a check a year or more from now.

The above, by the way, is the MOST that Pandora's authors can earn--because as we know, Amazon and other booksellers buy at discount.

BuffySquirrel said...

Can we spell rights grab? Sheesh.

Anonymous said...

Note the irony in the title "Pandora". In other words, Pandora's box will be opened and all heck breaks loose. :/

wwwwolf said...

I understand the scepticism about "wiki style", but I'd like to comment about two things.

a) The Essjay scandal was mostly about an user misrepresenting their qualifications and then using their "expert position" to gain advantage in editorial discussions - the content he contributed had to either stay or go on the merits of the content alone. I don't think any system is immune to this sort of abuses... aside of doing something outrageous like demanding actual results instead of just debate.

The problem today, however, is that people have a rather flexible definition of results, and are too trusting. I can see the problem if people come to the site purporting to be great speler adn editro, and other participants just blindly trust them to do the job right, even when the results could be, well, less than spectacular.

b) A Million Penguins was a failure for one reason: Wiki technology is just one way of writing texts. If you want something actually done, you have to set some sort of goals and common rules - in other words, a process. AMP did the former and completely disregarded the latter, expecting some magic fairy dust to take care of getting the results where, uh, anyone wanted them to be. Wikis aren't a magic bullet - they're a highly efficient collaboration tool and nothing more, just as efficient as their users make it to be.

Now why did Wikipedia get where it is now instead of falling into such barbarism? We have a goal. "Let's make a comprehensive encyclopaedia." It's a well-defined goal. What was the great goal in AMP? "Let's make a novel." No one writes a novel by deciding one day, "Okay, let's make a novel"! It could have been a success if they had merely used it as a means of communication: "Okay, after the first few days, we, having conducted a survey of the writing preferences of potential participants and a straw poll on the topic, decided that we'll be writing A Million Penguins: An Ecological Murder Mystery Thriller (prepare for some serious competition, John Grisham!)

I believe that Wiki model has proven itself for making non-fiction books, especially technical and scientific ones. Fiction, however, is an entirely different beast.

Sorry if this veered too much off-topic.

- wwwwolf, a random Wikipedian

Bernita said...

In other words, they want everything for nothing.

Deb said...

I'm a newbie, and can be rather naive--why would a writer (or one's agent) EVER agree to a kill fee?

Kristi Holl said...

Just when you think you've heard everything--it gets worse! Thanks for taking your time and using your expertise to warn writers.

Melissa said...

Hi, I'm WEbook's Content Manager -- and I also wrote two chapters for Pandora. Thanks for the feedback on WEbook's terms of use. We're still a young enterprise -- we launched to the public just over 2 weeks ago -- and when we wrote the Terms of Use, we knew it would be easier to adjust royalties up rather than down.

Now that our community is picking up steam, we're updating the Terms of Use, making it easier for writers everywhere to pen the book inside them without fretting too long about intellectual property rights, copyright, and options.

WEbook users will soon see a TOU revision that is decidedly WEbooker-friendly, allowing anyone and everyone to write on the site without making any advance commitment to publish with WEbook. Moreover, you will see some very author-friendly terms that we hope will make WEbook the publisher of choice for writers everywhere. Not only will writers get a great platform, a vibrant and engaged community, but WEbook is planning to implement a 50/50 profit share with published authors and contributors.

So, if you write at WEbook, if the community picks your project for publication, you will get a chance to say Yea! or Nay!, and you and WEbook will partner for the success of the project and the reinvention of publishing as we know it.

We're inking the changes now, and they'll be live on the site by the end of the week. We think WEbookers will be thrilled -- if you have any further thinking about what makes the most sense, please visit this forum thread on our site and post your thoughts: http://www.webook.com/forums/messageIndex.aspx?topic=c1d77be5d2354157b825d4b8a876c373&fview=true

Victoria Strauss said...

If Melissa's comment has a slightly canned feel, that's because most of it has been copied from this post in one of WEbook's forums.

I'll definitely be following any changes in the Terms of Use. And I'm hoping that "profit" (as in that 50/50 profit split) will be clearly defined.

Anonymous said...

"Canned"? Rather snide comment.

WEbook did change the rights, so you might want to update the blog. I've been writing on it for a while, and I do enjoy the process. It's strongest point, I think, are the anthologies.

I would imagine that the more it grows, the better it's going to get, as it's already improving.

Victoria Strauss said...

WEbook did indeed change its Terms of Use. I did a followup post on May 2.

Isis McGowan said...

I thought something was fishy when I saw how someone got an "instant contract" after only three months with a major publisher--simply by submitting a page.