Author Serfdom in the Literary Kingdom (A Not So Fanciful Tale)
There was once a very large kingdom which spread throughout the known world. This kingdom was not based on geographic boundaries, but rather on the peoples need for knowledge, entertainment, and creative imagination. It was known as the Literary Kingdom, and was ruled by a number of powerful kings. These kings were known as Publishers, and they wielded great power and control over the Kingdom. The largest and strongest of the Publishers lived in great mansions and exercised almost complete control over the Kingdom. The Publishers were fortunate in that they had access to a vast supply of serf labor. These serfs were called Authors. The Authors were known for working tirelessly, plying their trade in the hope of gaining the attention of one of the Publishers. The Authors longed to have the results of their labor distributed throughout the Kingdom. But alas, without the blessings of the Publishers, the Authors had no means to distribute the results of their creative labor.
When they so chose, the Publishers would select a small number of Authors and would distribute their work in the Kingdom. They would offer the Author an agreement, crafted on their terms, providing payment for the use of the Author’s creative labor. These agreements were called Literary Contracts.
Over time, the Publishers realized that it would be more efficient to control the Authors through a middleman, in effect a serf master. These serf masters were called Literary Agents. The Agents were allowed to represent numerous Authors and several Publishers at the same time. The Agents described themselves to the Authors as liaisons between the Authors and the Publishers. But in reality they also were under the control of the Publishers. After all, real power emanated from control of the distribution channels in the Literary Kingdom. The Publishers knew that serf master Agents and serf Authors were plentiful and easily replaced. Alas, the Agents and Authors also realized this fact.
Curiously, for those Authors fortunate enough to receive payments from the Publishers, the payments received were often quite small. And the most curious part was that the Authors were paid in bones. Sometimes the Authors’ payment consisted of turkey bones, other times chicken bones. And even more curiously, when the bone payment was made to the Author a Publishers representative would arrive at the Authors’ home to deliver the bones. Delivery was made by standing in front of the Authors’ home and casting the bones toward the Authors’ front door. And on occasion, the bone delivery was made by the Authors’ Agent, who would not only cast the bones at the Authors’ front door, but simultaneously would shout out “be thankful for these bones, many Authors don’t get bones at all!” But the most curious thing of all was that most of the Authors did not complain about being paid in bones. In fact, some of the Authors were overheard telling their friends and relatives how pleased they were to have the Publishers’ representatives throw bones at their front door.
As time passed the Publishers came to realize that based on their power in the Literary Kingdom, both the Agents and Authors were greatly intimidated by them. The Authors, despite having a Literary Agreement defining their payment terms, never questioned the bone payments they received. Although the bones they received were usually much fewer than expected, they rarely complained. Over time the Publishers realized that despite the fact that the Literary Agreement allowed the Author to verify their bone payments, the Authors never requested the verification. So, after a few years the Publishers became quite loose in tabulating the bone payments. Sometimes they would have unsupervised bone accountants divide the available bones any way they chose. Other times they would let unpaid volunteers, “bone interns”, decide how to distribute the Authors’ bones. Sometimes, those Authors bold enough to question their bone payments would ask their Agents what they should do. However the Agents, also intimidated by the Publishers, would strongly advise the Authors not to question their bone payments. And so the Authors, relying on their Agents’ advice, would do nothing about the small number of bones they received for their creative labor.
Then one day, an Author named Sarah called her Agent, named Benjamin. Sarah was concerned about the small bone payment she had received. Sarah asked Benjamin “why is my bone payment so small? I understand that my book has been selling well”. And Benjamin responded. “Sarah, I will ask the Publisher about this. But we don’t want to take a chance that we will make the Publisher mad at you. Remember you are only an Author, and the Publisher has many Authors to choose from.” In the back of Benjamin’s mind was his concern that the Publisher would blame him if Sarah complained. After all, Benjamin represented several Authors. What would happen to him if the Publisher blamed him for Sarah’s complaint?
But Sarah persisted. Although her bone payments had always seemed small, in the past her bones had at least a little meat on them. So she called her Agent again. “Benjamin, please help me. This is the smallest number of bones I’ve ever received. My first year I received turkey leg bones, and some with meat on them! Last year I was paid with turkey neck bones. But this year the Publishers’ representative only threw a few chicken wing bones at my door! There’s no meat on these bones, and I’m mad!”
But Benjamin did nothing. In fact, after a while he refused to return Sarah’s phone calls. Sarah was frustrated. She did not know what to do. So she got out her Literary Contract and read it over. And there in the fine print she found an interesting clause. It said that she had the right to check the bone payments and verify that she had received the right number of bones. This seemed promising. But Sarah did not feel she had the necessary skills to perform this function. Also, she felt it would be better if someone else would handle this for her. “That’s it”, she thought. “What I need is a professional Bone Counter to verify my bone payments!” But Sarah did not know how to find a professional Bone Counter that would represent her. So she called another literary Agent she knew, Michael. She explained to Michael what she was looking for and what she planned to do. Michael responded with a stern tone. “Sarah, I’ve been working in the Literary Kingdom for many years. Authors are not supposed to question the Publisher’s bone payments. The Publisher’s have their own Bone Counters for this job. And anyway, it will cost you more to hire your own Bone Counter than it’s worth. Bone counting professionals charge a lot to verify Author bone payments. And of course, you don’t want to make your Publisher mad at you, do you? He might think you are accusing him of shorting your bone payments”.
Now Sarah was really frustrated. She knew her latest book was selling well, and she sensed that she was not getting the proper amount of bones. Her last payment had been 6 measly chicken wing bones. These were hardly enough to feed her cat (not that she would feed chicken bones to her cat. Her cat was named Sheba. Need we say more?). So she left the 6 chicken bones in the back yard for the neighborhood raccoon. Sarah was steaming. She didn’t want to make her Publisher mad at her. All she wanted to do was just what her contract said she could do. Verify her bone payments. That shouldn’t make her Publisher mad since it was in her contract. But how could she find a professional Bone Counter that she could afford?
So Sarah began researching the bone counting profession. And she started searching various Author publications in the Literary Kingdom. And, lo and behold, after many days of searching, Sarah found a small advertisement in an Author’s publication. The ad read “Authors, verify your bone payments. Professional Bone Counter available on a ‘contingency basis’.”
Sarah couldn’t believe her good fortune. Here was a professional Bone Counter that would work on a contingency basis. Sarah knew that ‘contingency’ meant the Bone Counter would be paid based on the number of underpaid bones received from the Publisher (she wasn’t born yesterday!). She contacted the Bone Counter immediately and was surprised at how easy it was to start the process.
Sarah waited for a few weeks to hear what the Bone Counter would find for her. Then one day she received a call from the Bone Counter. “Sarah, we have good news. Your Publisher has agreed to pay you a significant number of additional bones. He said they had a problem with their computer system and it led to a miscount of your bones.” Then the Bone Counter told Sarah how many additional bones she would receive. Sarah couldn’t believe her ears!
Soon the day came when the Bone Counter notified her that the additional bones had arrived from her Publisher. She received a call from the Bone Counter. “Sarah, we have some rather large boxes of bones here with your name on them”. Sarah was ecstatic. She told the Bone Counter, “Can you send the bones over now? And don’t worry, you won’t have to waste your time throwing the bones at my front door. We have a wheel barrow. I’ll have my son come out and get them!”
Then Sarah heard something totally unexpected from the Bone Counter. “Sarah, if you’d like we can do for you what we often do for our other Authors. We can convert your bones into something else. It’s called ‘money’. Some of our Authors call it ‘real money’. Would you like us to convert your bone payment into ‘real money’?”
Needless to say Sarah requested the ‘real money’. Sometime later, while on vacation at the beach cottage she had rented for her families vacation, she was speaking with several of her Author friends whom she had invited to visit. “Well, George, has our Bone Counter been able to find any additional bones for you?” (Sarah had passed the word about her good fortune in finding the contingency Bone Counter to a number of her Author friends). “Yes”, George replied. “In fact I’m due to collect my ‘real money’ next week. I plan on using it to help pay for my daughter’s college tuition”. Susan spoke up next. “I received my ‘real money’ last month. We’re headed for Italy next week”. Fran was the last to comment. “Sarah, I can’t thank you enough for referring me to our contingency Bone Counter. My new Lexus you were admiring is the result of the additional payments I received. Next week my husband and I are off for China. And the best part is my Publisher was not in the least offended that I had my bone payments reviewed. In fact, he admitted he respects the Authors that follow through on the contract terms more than those that don’t. He has already offered me a lucrative contract on my next book. I can’t thank you enough. Please pass the caviar. And yes, another glass of champagne would be grand . Will the lobster dinner be served soon?”
And so ends the tale of Author Serfdom in the Literary Kingdom. The Authors were freed from their serfdom and continued to pursue the careers they loved. The Publishers admitted they respected the Authors that reviewed their literary contracts more than those that didn’t. And even the Agents were thankful in that many of them received additional payments based on the Bone Counter’s success. The only real casualty was Benjamin. Passed away shortly after Sarah’s Bone Counter finished her report. Choked on a chicken bone. R.I.P.