The contractual relationship between authors and book publishers is, as with most contracts, a matter of exchange: the author grants the exclusive right to publish a manuscript in exchange for the promises of the publisher to make certain payments in the form of advances and royalties. The bargain is premised on the differential ability of authors and book publishers to exploit intellectual property: the conventional wisdom is that publishers are in a much stronger position to properly market, distribute and collect payments, and that authors are better served by concentrating on the creative process. As that binary model evolves – into one where authors, via blogs and social media platforms, are becoming ever more involved in the marketing of their products, and where “self-publishing” becomes a viable option – we can expect increased scrutiny of the traditional author/publisher contract.
Last week the Wall Street Journal (‘Vanity’ Press Goes Digital) (hat tip: Steven Matthews at Slaw) highlighted the impact that digitization (from the internet to the publication of e-books) is having on the relationship between authors and publishers, particularly the economic aspect:
“If you are an author and you want to reach a lot of readers, up until recently you were smart to sell your book to a traditional publisher, because they controlled the printing press and distribution. That is starting to change now,” says Mark Coker, founder of Silicon Valley start-up Smashwords Inc., which offers an e-book publishing and distribution service.
Fueling the shift is the growing popularity of electronic books, which few people were willing to read even three years ago. Apple Inc.’ s iPad and e-reading devices such as Amazon’s Kindle have made buying and reading digital books easy.
This month, Amazon is upping the ante, increasing the amount it pays authors to 70% of revenue, from 35%, for e-books priced from $2.99 to $9.99. A self-published author whose e-book lists for $9.99 on Amazon’s Kindle e-bookstore will receive about $6.99 for each book sold. The author would net $1.75 on a similar new e-book sale by most major publishers.
Digital self-publishing is attracting even top-selling authors. F. Paul Wilson, who writes the popular “Repairman Jack” thriller series published by Tor, an imprint of Macmillan, says he posted on Amazon five science-fiction novels published earlier in his career at $2.99 each.
“This stuff was just sitting around, out of print, doing nothing,” says Mr. Wilson, who has written about 40 books. He thinks he’ll eventually make as much as $5,000 to $10,000 a month when he lists all his older titles.
Mr. Wilson doesn’t foresee abandoning print, but some authors do. Thriller writer Joe Konrath says that, as more consumers buy e-books, the economics will tip.
Under the pen name Jack Kilborn, he sold 50,000 copies of his last novel, “Afraid,” published by Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, in all formats. He earned about $30,000. But if he sold it as an e-book on his own, he could make that much in 18 months by selling 800 e-books a month, he estimates.
Mr. Konrath says he’s already earning more from self-published Kindle books that New York publishers rejected than from his print books. In the past 14 months, he has sold nearly 50,000 Kindle e-books, and at the current royalty rate, he makes $58,000 per year from his self-published works. When Amazon royalties double this summer, he expects to bring in $170,000 annually.
If accurate, those are impressive numbers, perhaps breathing new life into the concept of the “mid-list” author. That being said, this CBC story (E-books: Royalties vs. respect, containing an interview with House of Anansi’s Sarah MacLachlan) notes that the calculus of self-publishing is not simply a financial one:
Q: There was an interesting comment from the audience during the panel discussion that called you all “gatekeepers.”
A: That’s sort of what I was referring to when I said we were cultural aggregators because we are that. I think anybody who wants to publish a book ultimately wants to have it published by somebody. In some way that gives them a sense of value, in saying “I wrote something that was good enough to be published by this company.”
Self-publishing still has a kind of… it’s a little bit pejorative. America is a very interesting and rich example of self-publishing, and what happens often is that traditional houses, when they see a self-published book doing really, really well, they’ll go and pick it up. I don’t feel it’s a bad thing to self-publish at all, but I do think what publishers [do] is … we try to deliver the best books and get behind them.
There are a variety of intangible considerations which authors (and their legal counsel) need to take into account when making the decision as to which route, self-publication or established publisher, to take. And the “correct” answer for a particular author may well be different today as compared to what the correct answer will be a few years from now. For a critical take on the viability of self-publishing, Canada’s dean of science fiction, Robert J. Sawyer provides food for thought: Once again, folks: do not self-publish your science-fiction novel; More on self-publishing).