So people who are watching quite a specific sub-section of our quite specific subgenre are likely to have noticed the controversy surrounding a recent blogpost by Aleksandr Voinov concerning the non-publication of his novel Nightingale and his increasingly negative feelings towards the company he co-founded.
I want to start off by saying three things. The first is that, in the spirit of full disclosure, I write for Riptide and so I do, in fact, have a horse in this race. If people start boycotting them, they are, in a very real sense, going to be boycotting me and that’s, well, non-ideal from my perspective. The second is that, despite this and also in the spirit of full disclosure, my relationship with RP hasn’t always been smooth and I’ve had my fair share of miscommunications with them. So, on some level, I can see where Voinov is coming from. And I understand the hurt and anger and sense of powerlessness you get when you feel like you’re being totally dicked around. Working relationships are complicated and, without playing too much into stereotypes, writers tend to be emotional, nervy, temperamental people, and that makes us genuinely hard to manage. It’s part of the reason agents are so important.
The third thing I want to say, though, cuts to the reason I’m writing this post which is that I feel this is very much an industry issue. Writing is a funny business because, especially in these days of social media, writers are extremely accessible and the way readers interact with books makes them feel they have a lot of ownership over them. But, in fact, the way that publishing works as an industry is really opaque to people who don’t actually work in it. It’s been a steep learning curve for me and I still mostly leave it to my agent, editors and publishers. The full details of what is currently going on with Alekesandr Voinov, Riptide and the publication of Nightingale are complex, technical and—in quite important ways—proprietary information.
The main thing that bothers me about the original post is that it’s framed as an explanation of why the book will not be published but it doesn’t actually communicate well to its audience what the situation really is. It goes into just enough detail about the technicalities to create an impression that could be construed as misleading and is likely to be especially misleading to readers who lack specialist information about the mechanics of publishing.
At its most basic level, whoever holds the rights to something gets to control how and when it is published. If, for whatever reason, you do not currently hold the rights to your work (and most authors won’t most of the time because those rights go to the publisher when you sign a contract with them) then that is simply the situation as it is. If your book is currently under contract with a publisher, you aren’t allowed to self-publish it, no matter what other circumstances may exist. As Riptide’s statement makes relatively clear, Voinov offered a book for pre-sale knowing that he was not legally entitled to publish it. This was, at best, optimistic.
Taking as read that he did not intend to defraud his readers, he clearly expected that the rights would have reverted to him by the publication date but the fact that they did not is entirely his responsibility. He chose to offer a product for sale that he was not, when he made the offer, legally entitled sell. It was up to him to make certain that he would be legally entitled to sell it when the time came. I know from personal experience that rights negotiations can be long and tricky because publishers do, in fact, have an investment in the books they publish. Rights are a resource—in fact, they’re a monopoly on a scarce resource—and people negotiate strenuously over them. This is not generally evidence of greed or malice on anybody’s part: it’s just how things work. Quite simply, if a person, institution or (to use Voinov’s word) “entity” controls something valuable, it is not reasonable to expect that entity to give up control of the valuable thing merely because it is convenient to a third party.
It would, theoretically, be in Riptide’s power to unconditionally waive all rights to Nightingale or simply turn a blind eye to its being illegally published but this would be a terrible, terrible precedent. Publishing houses stand or fall by their IP and if I can sell a book myself while a publisher still owns the rights, then that publisher’s entire business model falls apart. As best I understand it, RP has, in fact, offered to sign the rights to Nightingale over to Aleksandr Voinov for free as a gesture of good will. They have said they will do this once the partnership has dissolved. The partnership is still under negotiation. Now, yes, they could sign the rights over anyway but they are under no obligation to do so. Again, the only reason that the time at which the rights were handed over became critical was because Voinov—of his own free will—committed to a specific publication date.
If somebody offers to give you something that they own for free, you do not really get to complain that they have failed to give it to you at the time of your choosing. If you offer to give me your Back To The Future boxset and I, without consulting you, invite a bunch of friends around to do a Back To The Future-thon on the 21st October 2015 and you don’t manage to get the DVDs to me until the 22nd, it’s not your fault that my party failed. If you offer to give me your Back To The Future boxset and then we get into a massive argument about something and this contributes to your unwillingness to prioritise giving me your property for no return, I do not get to claim that you are using my Back To The Future party as a stick to beat me with. Expecting what amounts to a gift from a person, institution or entity while at the same time being actively and publicly hostile to that entity is simply not reasonable.
The original post asserts quite explicitly that RP are holding Nightingale “hostage” in order to apply pressure in the on-going negotiations. I can see why Voinov feels like this—I’ve felt like that myself, at times—but I also feel like this is a dangerous and potentially misleading way to characterise something that is basically completely normal. I mean, yes, technically if RP won’t release the rights to Nightingale until the partnership is dissolved, then we could say that RP are holding the book hostage to get the agreement they want but we could say with equal honesty that Voinov is holding the negotiations hostage to get the agreement he wants. Hell, if we really wanted to push it, we could say that if I go into a Starbucks and order a coffee, then until the moment I pay, I am holding my money hostage to get the drink I want, while the barista is holding my flat white hostage to get my money. Put simply, all trades, exchanges and negotiations that are not completely unconditional can be described in terms of things being held hostage. The language is needlessly emotive.
When you get right down to it, a negotiation is just a highly structured and potentially expensive argument. And the thing about arguments is that everybody involved thinks that everyone else involved is being unreasonable. And, again, I should stress I understand why Aleksandr has had the emotional reactions he has had and why he has written about them in the way he has written about them. These sorts of processes are draining and frustrating and infuriating for basically everyone involved. But I think it would be deeply unfair to judge the ethics or the conduct of a company on which a number of people rely for their income on the basis of one man’s hurt and anger, no matter how genuine or justified it is.
Riptide is doing nothing wrong by insisting that Voinov not publish Nightingale while they still have the rights to it. They have done nothing wrong nor have they failed in any responsibility by not giving him the rights before the date that he chose to set for the book’s publication. I have seen no evidence that RP are actively trying to bury Nightingale or, indeed, that they have no intent to publish it. They have stated publicly that they would be happy to do so (just as they are equally happy to return the rights to the author). What we are seeing here is a glimpse into the always messy and often grubby world of asset management and contract negotiation. Everybody involved is a grown up. This is not David versus Goliath. This is not The Man picking on The Little Guy. This is an essentially private disagreement between the owners of a company that one of them has, somewhat bizarrely, chosen to make public.
I cannot help but feel that if I was in a similar situation and wished to write a blog post explaining to my readers why a book I had said would be published on a particular date would not be published on that date, I would probably say something like “I’m sorry for the delay in the publication of this book but I have yet to secure the rights from my former publisher. It will be released as soon as negotiations are completed.” Anything else would feel uncomfortably like an attempt to frame the narrative and drag readers into a dispute that I sort of feel it’s my job to keep them out of.
If you’re an author and this has made you concerned about selling to Riptide, I suggest you talk to other authors who’ve written for them. You could start with, for example, me. You could also contact Riptide directly. I’m sure they would be very happy to address your concerns.
If you’re a reader who isn’t sure Riptide deserves your support, then I’d say broadly the same thing. Talk to them, talk to other people who write for them. And, also please bear in mind that publishing houses, especially small digital publishing houses, are more than just their owners. When you buy, for example, my books, you’re not just supporting RP, you’re supporting me, my editor, my agent, the proofers, the artists and all of the other, hardworking invisible people who take a book from nothing to something.
If you really feel that Aleksandr Voinov has been badly treated (and I can completely see why you might feel that), the best way to support him is not to go after the other party in an on-going negotiation. It’s to buy his books, read them, talk about them, review them and tell your friends. Just like I’m sure you’re doing already.