Publishing's Swiftian future

Publishing's Swiftian future

Publishing has a new question to ponder this week: what could Taylor Swift do for us? Swift's triumph: she got a tech giant to change its mind.

In an open letter to Apple, Swift said she was withholding the record, 1989, from Apple’s new music streaming service, Apple Music, because she was unhappy with the three-month free trial offered to subscribers. “I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company,” wrote Swift. “Three months is a long time to go unpaid, and it is unfair to ask anyone to work for nothing.”

The blog prompted the following response from Eddy Cue, Apple's senior vice president of Internet Software and Services,

“#AppleMusic will pay artist for streaming, even during customer’s free trial period”

"We hear you @taylorswift13 and indie artists. Love, Apple”

Swift was not the only musician or music company to speak out about the free trial, the indie label Beggars Group had earlier blogged: “Whilst we understand the logic of their proposal and their aim to introduce a subscription-only service, we struggle to see why rights owners and artists should bear this aspect of Apple’s customer acquisition costs.” Though to slightly less effect.

But the importance of Swift’s intervention has been widely acknowledged. Speaking to Billboard magazine Cue said they had already been been hearing "a lot of concern from indie artists about not getting paid during the three-month trial period" before Swift spoke out. Apple had sought to ameliorate the three-month royalty free window by paying a higher rate after the initial period. Now it will pay artists during the free period, and retain the higher fee afterwards. Still, Apple can afford it.

Could a little bit of Swiftian kick-back help the book business too? It is worth contrasting Apple’s manoeuvre with the changes Amazon made to how it will pay indie writers signed up to its all-you-can-read Kindle Unlimited (KU) and the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL). The change (in brief) is that from 1st July authors with books in those schemes will no longer be paid their percentage of Amazon’s pool of money once 10% of a book has been read, they will now be paid based on what the number of pages read, after the Amazon-mandated "Start Reading Location" (SRL).

The switch prompted much discussion, much of it captured by my colleague Porter Anderson here. Some see it as a way of preventing authors gaming the old system—by creating numerous smaller works, each paying out individually—others as an example of how influential Amazon could become in how authors think about their work.

Much will be written once the impact of the change hits. However, what I have read less about is how, in altering its payment terms, Amazon itself was responding to artist feedback. As the company noted: “We're making this switch in response to great feedback we received from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read.”

In his two blogs about the subject Hugh Howey notes his own influence: “We have different degrees of leverage. I’ve tried to use my leverage to win concessions for all authors. A number of the bestselling authors have done this. We ask for pre-orders for everyone as soon as possible. Better reporting. More categories. All kinds of stuff. I pressure Amazon to extend the 70% down to 99 cents for shorter works, which I think is fair. I give them hell about the exclusivity requirement every chance I get, from the bottom of the ladder to the top.”

There is something intriguing about the growing power of individual artists or collectives—like Howey, Swift claims to be speaking up for those who don’t yet wield the same power as her, “This is not about me. Thankfully I am on my fifth album and can support myself, my band, crew, and entire management team by playing live shows. This is about the new artist or band that has just released their first single and will not be paid for its success.”

Some will see this as positive force, but for others it looks both elusive and illusory. Apple has the cash-pot to ameliorate artists for now, and a cynic might attribute its volte-face to PR rather than any kind of real "listening". Ultimately its goal is to launch a music streaming service that many more artists still don’t buy into, and in doing so curb the threat posed to it by its main challenger in the music download business Spotify.

Furthermore, as the Verge points out even Swift’s leverage is limited: “Swift hasn't said word one about YouTube, the most popular ad-supported streaming service in existence, because taking her videos of off YouTube would be a disaster for her fans.

Similarly, one wonders how indie authors outside of the elite group feel about Amazon’s change in terms. Many were co-opted into Kindle Unlimited without prior request because Amazon felt compelled to move against Scribd and Oyster, and though writers can opt out, the fund from which Amazon generates payments (though it has risen month on month) is still entirely made-up. Now how writers get paid has changed too—and without any sense of their being any negotiation. It is an extreme scenario, but not one we should feel entirely comfortable about.

Neither should those who enjoyed the Twitter meme on Taylor Swift sit entirely comfortably. Swift's intervention shows a transfer of power, a celebration of the artist as the ultimate power-broker, and yet at the same time it demonstrates how that power is coalescing at the top. Where once companies such as Apple or Amazon faced powerful intermediaries jostling for the right to cut advantageous deals, they are now focused on occupying that middle-ground between artist and consumer by themselves. In such a scenario, individual artists may cut decent arrangements from time to time or even influence strategies, but as one commentator has written on Amazon's latest move, the house always wins.

A more pertient question book publishers should be asking, is not what could Taylor Swift do for them, but how the music business got into a position where it had to rely on a single artist to run its negotiations for them.