Ask The Editor

March 15, 2010

What’s a fair ebook royalty?

This is a question that’s come up quite a bit lately with author and editor friends. Are the current standard ebook royalties (25 percent of receipts) fair? And if not, what would be fair?

The argument for raising royalties to 50 percent or greater of receipts is that ebooks don’t cost publishers anything to produce: no paper, no printing, no binding, no warehousing, no shipping, no returns. Whatever investment in editing, promotion, typesetting and design that the publisher made, had to be made in order to produce the print book. Producing an e-version is a trivial additional cost. So authors should get at least half because for the publisher, ebook revenue is gravy.

That argument assumes that everything stays the same in publishing and that ebooks will continue to be a small portion of books sold. We know, however, that publishing isn’t staying the same. Sales of e-readers and ebooks have risen dramatically in just the past year. Between the Kindle and the iPad, almost everyone expects that the ebook will be embraced by more readers. The pace of adoption should increase dramatically. The open question is how to quantify that adjective “dramatically.”

And for virtually every ebook bought, a print book isn’t.

Right now, ebooks are estimated to be about 5 percent of the market. What happens to the industry when they’re 25 percent?

Anyone who has read this blog more than once knows that I’m a fierce advocate for writers, am against the Google settlement because it’s a worse deal for writers than writers can get on their own from Google, and have urged writers to stand up for their rights on pay, copyright, and other issues.

So you might be surprised to learn that I’m not convinced that writers should demand 50 percent of receipts for ebook royalties.

I agree that 25 percent of receipts is too low. Publishing guru Mike Shatzkin estimates that on hardcover books, the “standard” royalty of 15 percent works out to about 27 to 32 percent of receipts, which in turn, after expenses, splits profits about 50/50 between author and publisher.

A 50/50 split of profits is fair. But that’s not the same as a 50/50 split of receipts. One day soon, e-publishing won’t be all gravy. It will be the way we publish books. And all the costs associated with publishing books (minus the printing and other costs that printed books incur but ebooks don’t) will have to factored into ebook pricing and royalty calculations.

You can bet that publishers are already factoring the future into their calculations as they set their 25 percent of receipts royalty schedules. Nobody can accurately predict the future though, and publishers are giving themselves ample padding.

The issue we need to address is how should receipts between publisher and author be split to account for a future where ebooks are a big chunk of the books sold?  The goal should be that, after publishers’ costs are covered, authors and publishers share the profits 50/50.

The percentage of receipts authors would get with a fair (50/50 profit) royalty system is not 25 percent of receipts. But it’s not 50 percent of receipts either.

– Anita Bartholomew

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1 Comment »

  1. One aspect for publishers is to be able to quantify the value added service they provide apart from physical printing and distribution of books. Publicity, marketing, cover design, page design and most importantly editorial work. Assuming that distribution costs account for the bulk of expenditure may be an errant perception. It is a large factor, of course, but is not the only factor in unit costs. I could envision royalty increases after a quantity is sold, like a lot of escalating contracts out there already, once costs are recovered.

    Comment by Nathan H. — March 15, 2010 @ 2:06 pm | Reply


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