A few days ago I got an email from a member of the marketing team at F+W Media, a major publisher of craft books, asking if I’d consider reviewing Kim Kruzich’s new book, Retro Mama Scrap Happy Sewing. I love Kim’s work. She’s a meticulous sewist and a great designer with a focus on softies so I agreed and ordered the book.
Then I thought back to August, the last time I’d reviewed an F+W title, when I’d discovered something that raised questions for me about how craft publishers are handling book content. The August review was of Mariska Vos-Bolman’s book, Sew Cute to Cuddle. I’d discovered at that time that F+W had opened an Etsy shop under the name Stitch Craft Create, one of their publishing imprints. Simultaneous with the release of Mariska’s book F+W had listed the individual patterns as PDFs for sale in this Etsy shop, as well as on their own website.
When I agreed to review Kim’s book last week I checked to see if they were doing the same with her book patterns and the answer was yes. The official release date of Retro Mama Scrap Happy Sewing is April 10, but you can buy the patterns individually now on the Stitch Craft Create ecommerce shop and in their Etsy shop.
For me this raised some important questions: is it best practice for a publisher to take a craft book apart and sell the patterns as digital files? Is it a good idea for this to coincide with the book’s release? And is Etsy the right platform for a publisher like F+W?
I emailed Melanie Falick to get her professional opinion and she helped me to think it through over the phone. “Slicing and dicing book content is something a lot of publishers want to do,” Melanie told me. Breaking up a book “provides another revenue stream for the author and the publisher and can help with discovery. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
In the course of our conversation I became curious about the exact language in the contract that allowed for the publisher to “slice and dice” a book. To find out, I got in contact with the Content Director at F+W, Ame Verso, and asked if she’d share that portion of the author contract with me. Here it is (bold text is my own):
The Author grants to the Publisher for the legal term of copyright the sole and exclusive license to produce, publish and reproduce the Work and furthermore grants to the Publishers the rights themselves to license the production, publication and reproduction of the Work or any adaptation, abridgement or extract of it in all editions, languages, and forms including digital media in existence now or to be developed in the future throughout the world.”
I often find legal terminology hard to understand not because I don’t grasp the meaning of the phrases, but because I don’t have the skills to foresee how those phrases might be applied in real circumstances in the future.
So I showed this phrase to Kate McKean, a literary agent who represents an impressive portfolio of top craft book authors. I asked Kate if it was possible to negotiate this phrase to prevent the publisher from selling a book’s patterns a la carte on Etsy.
“One way to handle it is to only allow the publisher to reproduce the projects verbatim, or all together, and not any ‘adaptation, abridgement or extract of it,'” Kate explained. It’s important to look at the contract as a whole, she warned, because this isn’t a foolproof fix.
As Melanie points out, dividing up book content and selling it in pieces isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Putting content in front of audiences in different formats and on different platforms can lead to more sales. The author earns royalties on every digital sale no matter where it takes place so it could be seen as a win win.
And yet I remain troubled by a few aspects of this situation.
First, I find the publisher’s use of Etsy problematic. There are many reasons designers write craft books, but one of them is to have their work distributed more widely than they could manage on their own. Both Mariska and Kim have thriving Etsy shops for their self-published PDF patterns that pre-existed their books. To have their publisher use that same sales channel is disappointing to me. The books are being distributed to stores and through Amazon, but if a publisher wants to use ecommerce for patterns I feel they should use their own channels and work to build the audience for those channels to the point that they offer a significant advantage to the author.
Second, the separate patterns don’t seem to be positioned to support sales of the book. For example the Etsy listing for Daron the Dragon from Mariska’s book simply says, “Project taken from Sew Cute to Cuddle by Mariska Vos-Bolman.” If this listing is truly intended to help customers discover the whole book, why not add some of the text used to promote the book on Amazon? Something like, “This pattern is just one of 12 cute stuffed animal designs included in Sew Cute to Cuddle, a book by designer Mariska Vos-Bolman that will delight boys and girls alike and includes patterns for a monkey, an owl, a bear, a dragon, a tiger, a cat, a dog, a hippo and more.” The pattern listings could be working harder to help promote the book.
And finally, it feels sneaky to me. Neither Kim nor Mariska knew that F+W was selling their book patterns on Etsy. “This Etsy shop is news to me,” Kim wrote in an email after I shared the link with her. Even though it’s perfectly legal, it doesn’t feel like a partnership. I’d much rather see publishers and authors work together to give a book its best chance at success.
Writing a book remains an exciting and prestigious endeavor for a designer. Working with a publisher means having access to fantastic resources including editors, photographers, book designers, and marketing professionals. It’s a tremendous learning experience as well. And a book is still a sort of calling card or badge of legitimacy; things we crave in a profession that had no official certification system.
However you feel about breaking up book content, for me the biggest takeaway here is that book contracts are negotiable. The responsibility rests with the creator to read the contract, have it reviewed by a lawyer or agent who has experience with this type of contract and the publishing industry, and have the confidence to negotiate. As Melanie emphasized to me, “An author asking questions about a contract has never made me want to cancel the project.’”
The world of print publishing is shifting beneath our feet and this kind of vigilance and self-advocacy will only become increasingly important.
*Update April 9, 2015: F+W Media in the UK (where Stitch Craft Create is based) was furious at me for publishing this post which they interpreted as an attack on their business practices. They have removed me from their book review list.