Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The trouble with eBooks, part 1

First stop on our little trip around the publishing industry has to be here. The way I spelled these “little electronic wonders” (saw that term a while back) was entirely intentional now that those fine folks at Apple have thrown their hat in the ring.

Now to the meaning behind my subject line. There is trouble in Authorland because the landscape surrounding eBooks is more like the Wild West than what we imagine the staid old publishing industry to be. That’s because non-publishers are trying their damnedest to redefine publishing.

I’m the first to admit that the outmoded business model used by publishers could use a lot of tweaking, but in the free-for-all that’s going on now, authors are going to be the ones getting trampled even worse than we are now.

Case in point: Even though the costs of publishing eBooks is miniscule compared to their paper brethren, authors are being offered the same 10-15% cut of the pie. That is completely ridiculous. Here’s some of the things publishers don’t have to pay for with eBooks: hard copy proofing (more expensive than you’d imagine), printing, storage, fulfillment (that’s shipping and its related stuff) and returns. It also costs nothing to send out review copies.

So what do publishers still have to pay for? Editing, page layout (in this age of computers that’s no big deal) and promotion — and we all know how much promotion we get from most publishers. There are some fulfillment costs, but that’s easily set up and not all that expensive when you’re doing it for large numbers of books.

But the real rub for authors is that now it’s nearly impossible to trace how many sales have taken place. In the past, if you wanted to pay the expense of an audit, you could actually track how many books were printed, where they were shipped, how many were returned, etc, etc. With eBooks, the only real way to trace books is through bank deposits and electronic records. I don’t think I need to tell anyone how easy it is to fudge that sort of thing. Does the name Enron ring any bells? Have you ever heard of Judith Appelbaum vs HarperCollins? Read up on this story if you want your hair to stand on end.

So it seems to me that authors are going to get screwed worse than ever. We’re left with our usual royalty rate while the publishers’ costs plummet. That means a proportionally smaller cut of the profits, regardless of how many eBooks are sold. Couple that with the fact that eBooks sell for a lot less money, and it’s not a happy picture is it?

We’re going to stay in eBook-land next week when we'll look at what’s happening at the other end of the electronic pipeline: the battle over formatting and its fallout.

Stay tuned...


John Corrigan said...

I've heard of one publisher calling an author whose contract (signed several years ago) dictates that she get 50% of all non-print profits. She was asked to renegotiate to a "reasonable" percentage. She declined. The publisher is not making the books available for e-sales.

Rick Blechta said...

I suspect this is the publisher's idea of punishment for the offending author.

RG Morse said...

Rick, it doesn't have to go this way - out of the current chaos, new & better models will also emerge. As Vicki knows, I'm working on one right now - authorcloud.com - that will provide, among other services, openly trackable eBook sales (and 2 types of eBooks, BTW, "straight" and ":with a chaser," the latter featuring embedded media - you talking about your latest characters, Google maps for important physical locations in the book, why not a sound track?!), appropriate pricing (the author gets the last say), and 75% of net revenues flowing to the author.

Rick Blechta said...

Herr Morse,

Thanks for the comment. You're obviously someone with a white hat firmly on your head. And good for you!

What I was talking about are those faceless bean counters running the few, very large publishing houses. Those companies (and some smaller ones that emulate them) are more than happy to line their pockets at the expense of those who are producing the art they're selling.

It makes no difference to them whether it's books, screws or some other widget. They're only looking at the bottom line.

All that being said, I hope the new and better models you're involved in coming up with "prove to be the strongest man at last". (Know where that quote is from?)

With my best wishes,

Ann Elle Altman said...

Yeah, writers are going to have to sort out the bugs on this one... it will take time. It's like the writer's strike a few years back, who gets royalty on internet views?


RG Morse said...

Thanks Rick for the encouraging response. I'm right smack dab in the middle of grappling with all this - perhaps I'm a bit more sensitive about this issue of fairness for writers than some publishers, because I'm also an author (no, I've never published my own works!), so I know first-hand what it's like on both sides of the equation. Somewhere in the midst of this Brave New World there lurks a new author-publisher relationship -- finding it is certainly proving to be anything but dull! And no, that quite eludes me -- do you know who said, "it is with books as it is with men - a few good ones make all the difference"?!

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