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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January 7, 2010

The next big thing in e-readers isn’t an e-reader

Watch out Kindle, Nook and other e-readers. Blio, a software based e-reading platform is rumored to offer the best e-reading experience yet. It will run on anything that has an operating system.

And it’s free (but not available until the end of the month spring, says PW).

The FREE Blio eReader software is the new touchstone for the presentation of electronic books & magazines. Stunning, full-color pages come alive in brilliant 3D. Even image-rich books are now at your digital fingertips — because Blio preserves a book’s original layout, fonts, and graphics.

Enjoy a vast selection of cookbooks, travel guides, how-to books, schoolbooks, art books, children’s stories, and magazines. Relax, learn, work, or play! The smart display lets you insert highlights, notes, videos, and even webpages. Selected books also go hands-free with Blio’s read-aloud feature.

Flexible & accessible. Shop endless titles, right from the Blio Bookstore, with access to over one million free books and a huge library of today’s bestsellers. Then, take your library on the road by syncing to your favorite on-the-go mobile device.

– Anita Bartholomew

October 26, 2009

Sales of ebooks nearly triple from 2008 to 2009

The headline says it all. E-Reads reports that, from August 2008 to August 2009, ebook sales shot up from $5 million to $14.4 million.

This may be bad news for traditional publishers but it has the potential to be excellent news for the small publisher, especially the one-person shop, publishing his or her own title.

It means that there is a market for ebooks and that market is growing like kudzu.

It does not mean you can simply publish and hope that people find your books, buy them, and recommend them to their friends. You still have to publish a book that is compelling enough to rise above the pack, with a great story, well-told, and a satisfying ending. You still have to promote the hell out of the book. Otherwise, no matter how great it is, nobody will know it exists.

But if you can turn out something that others will want to read and if you know how to reach potential readers, you have an easier entry now that at perhaps any other time in history.

– Anita Bartholomew

September 17, 2009

Publishing at the crossroads: who will own the future, you or Google?

I’ve written before that I believe the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) from On Demand Books,  could be a publishing industry game-changer, as much and even more so than the advent of ebooks. Although the EBM is only in 10 locations now, the wide distribution of EBMs or other machines like them, would allow authors, with new or out-of-print books, to publish their own work, at lower costs than are now generally available from POD printers. Because the books get published at the bookseller’s site, the author-publisher isn’t saddled with the significant costs of warehousing, shipping and distribution.

And returns? That would be a store-by-store policy issue but here, too, the savings to the author-publisher would be significant. If a store with an EBM permitted returns, the author-publisher might have to bear those costs. But the author-publisher would be spared the expense of refunds and two-way shipping on unsold  books that were published sans demand, and then removed from the shelf and returned when demand failed to catch up to supply.

The lower overhead opens up all sorts of possibilities and Google is now showing us that the game could go either way for those who want to breathe new life into their old books.

A story today in Wired says that Google is going to offer public domain (out-of-copyright) books via the Espresso Book Machine:

Over the last seven years, Google has scanned millions of dusty tomes from deep in the stacks of the nation’s leading university libraries and turned them into searchable documents available anywhere in the world through its search box.

And now Google Book Search, in partnership with On Demand Books, is letting readers turn those digital copies back into paper copies, individually printed by bookstores around the world.

Or at least by those booksellers that have ordered its $100,000 Espresso Book Machine, which cranks out a 300 page gray-scale book with a color cover in about 4 minutes, at a cost to the bookstore of about $3 for materials. The machine prints the pages, binds them together perfectly, and then cuts the book to size and then dumps a book out, literally hot off the press, with a satisfying clunk. (The company says a machine can print about 60,000 books a year.)

Two issues the story doesn’t address give us the clues to what makes this so technology so important to those of us who make our living by the written word:
The possibility for POD editions had been treated as a “maybe someday” clause in the Google settlement. Someday is here, it seems, the moment the settlement gets the judge’s thumbs-up (if it does). Assuming the same pricing structure as the out-of-copyright books, Google gets a dollar, and passes along 63 cents to the Book Rights Registry (BRR). The BRR passes along to publishers what’s left after taking its unknown cut. Publishers pass along to authors — what? Maybe 10 to 25 cents per book sold?

Contrast that to what an enterprising author might get by republishing her or his own out-of-print book and offering it via the EBM. Costs to print via the Espresso Book Machine are just $3 in materials plus whatever the bookseller adds for profit and the cost of amortizing the EBM owner’s investment in the machine. But on the author-publisher’s side, when you consider eliminating the costs of warehousing, shipping, distributors and returns, you’re likely to be about where you’d be with a traditionally published book with one enormous difference. You’ve removed the uncertainty factor that drives costs to unknown, profit-killing levels and keeps so many would-be author-publishers from going it alone.

When you’re no longer working on the crazy model of providing books on consignment and assuming all financial risks, you might actually be able to run a profitable business as an author-publisher.

Can you say the same is anywhere near possible if your books are coming out of the same Espresso Book Machine but the money goes to Google instead?

– Anita Bartholomew

September 14, 2009

Biggest challenge for publishers=biggest opportunity for authors?

The Frankfurt Book Fair is conducting a survey of publishers to learn what they believe will be the business models of the future.

The second question on the survey is interesting because it points to a potential shift in the balance of power in publishing from publishers to authors.

In your opinion, what are the three biggest challenges for the media industry? (Please check three answers)

Along with digitization, piracy, the economic crisis, oversupply and other issues, one of the 10 possible answers that you get to choose as among the three biggest challenges to publishers:

– Strengthened position of authors (increasing possibility for direct marketing without a publisher/bookseller)

The fact that this is one of the possible answers tells you that the market is shifting dramatically.

The fact that the following is also among the possible answers tells you we are at a crossroads.

– Concentration of distribution channels

Either authors will gain significant power in the new marketplace or big players like Google and Amazon will so overwhelm us all that we would do well to learn a new trade that will always be in demand, like plumbing.

We live in interesting times.

– Anita Bartholomew

September 10, 2009

Google settlement an “end run around copyright law” says Register of Copyrights

Finally, Congress is reviewing the settlement. Where have they all been until now?

From a report in The Wall Street Journal:

The head of the U.S. Copyright Office told Congress on Thursday that she had serious concerns about Google Inc.’s (GOOG) legal settlement with authors and publishers who sought to block the company from scanning books and making them searchable online.

Marybeth Peters, the register of copyrights, said in written testimony before the House Judiciary Committee that the Copyright Office was particularly concerned that the settlement would allow Google to display and distribute out-of-print books without prior consent from the copyright owners of those books.

“To allow a commercial entity to sell such works without consent is an end-run around copyright law as we know it,” Peters said.

“In the view of the Copyright Office, the settlement proposed by the parties would encroach on responsibility for copyright policy that traditionally has been the domain of Congress,” she said.

September 9, 2009

Wall Street Journal says that Amish romance novels are hot

Can Quaker military histories be far behind?

Snippet:

… Amish love stories, which are a booming new subcategory of the romance genre. The books, written by non-Amish writers, are aimed at a mainstream audience. But Ms. Woodsmall researches her stories among the Pennsylvania Amish, and she has a loyal Amish following.

The plot of her 2006 novel, “When the Heart Cries,” revolves around Hannah, a young Amish woman who falls in love with a Mennonite and hides her plans to marry him from her strict parents. The lovers struggle to overcome the cultural divide, and actually kiss a couple of times in 326 pages: “His warm, gentle lips moved over hers, and she returned the favor, until Hannah thought they might both take flight right then and there. Finally desperate for air, they parted.”

September 8, 2009

How to understand the objections just filed in the Google settlement

The time has now passed for authors to opt out of the settlement. However, we can still hope that Judge Chin will decline to approve it in its current form.

Today was the last day to file objections and briefs, and those that were filed mostly focused on an issue originally raised by attorney-author Scott Gant: that most of the authors who will be bound by the settlement terms were illegally drawn into the class.

Let me, as a non-lawyer, explain my understanding of this, as simply as I can.

On the same day the settlement was announced, the Authors Guild amended the class action complaint to immensely expand the Plaintiff (allegedly wronged party) class from where it had been: all those with a copyright interest in a book in the U Mich library, where Google had scanned all the books.

The newly amended complaint, which coincided with the announced settlement,  included in the Plaintiff class EVERYONE with a U.S. copyright interest in a book, not just those whose books had been infringed.

Why do Gant and most of the current crop of objectors claim this is illegal?  Because a lawsuit’s Plaintiffs have to have a valid complaint against a Defendant. Those whose books were not scanned by Google have no valid legal complaint. They aren’t affected.

The effect when the Authors Guild amended its complaint to expand the Plaintiff class was to sweeten the deal for Google, the Defendant. It gave Google the future right to scan books it hadn’t yet scanned and to circumvent copyright law (and, apparently, privately negotiated book contracts), and gain significant future control of all books.

In exchange, the Authors Guild got whatever it negotiated from Google, which we don’t (and probably won’t) know.

That’s a commercial transaction, not a settlement of a legal claim. And that’s the theme running through objections filed earlier by Scott Gant and today by Microsoft, Yahoo, Consumer Watchdog,  and a group of authors called the Bloom objectors.

Shorter explanation of the objections’ basis: it’s as if Search Engine X infringed my copyright but not yours. But in settling the case, I made a deal with Search Engine X that it could have your future rights along with mine, in exchange for something else I wanted.

Do you think it would be fair for you to be forced into such a deal? I don’t either. And, aside from a dozen other arguments that could be made, I hope that Judge Chin recognizes the inherent injustice of such a deal and stops it right there.

– Anita Bartholomew

September 3, 2009

Before tomorrow’s opt-out deadline: What you need to know about the Google settlement

Tomorrow is the deadline for opting out of the Google settlement.

Here are some bits of information that may help people better understand the broad strokes — and why you’re better off opting out:

1- You are not shut out of the Google Book Search program if you opt out of the settlement. You are only shut out of the bad terms of the settlement. You can still participate in the Google Book Search program as an individual author, retain all your rights, and remove your books at any time.

2- You will not get 63 percent of the proceeds under the settlement for any use of your book by Google. That 63 percent goes to the Book Rights Registry which skims an unspecified and unknown amount off the top for expenses.

3- The remainder of that 63 percent, once the Book Rights Registry takes its unspecified and unknown share, goes to your publisher which sends a portion to you based on its interpretation of your contract. If it interprets your contract wrongly, your only recourse is binding arbitration, a process which favors major players, not little guys.

4- The settlement terms will obviously conflict with some book contract terms. It is unclear how this will be resolved. As the settlement is written, binding arbitration is your only option if you disagree with a publisher’s interpretation. This issue has some lawyers scratching their heads because of the uncertainty that’s bound to result.

5 – It’s a pretty good deal for large publishers, for the above and other reasons.

6- Based on published quotes from its leadership, the AG appears to have initiated this class action with the goal of negotiating a settlement that would result in Google getting rights to books that it otherwise could not get. (See author/attorney Scott Gant’s objection which is a pdf file).

7- The AG will control half the Book Rights Registry and will choose half the board members. The AAP will select the other half. This deal with Google gives these groups future security at a time when the future of publishing is anything but secure.

– Anita Bartholomew

July 9, 2009

Two disconcerting tidbits of publishing news

These come via Publishers Lunch, which is emailed to subscribers, so I can’t provide a link:

1. Announcing the sale of: “seven zombie books from Permuted Press in a co-publishing deal.”

I was wondering when we’d finally move past the era of a vampire in every novel. This wasn’t exactly the evolution I’d hoped for.

2. “Portland, OR-area bookseller Stephanie Griffin closed her store Twenty-third Avenue Books in January and then became homeless. ‘Startled neighbors discovered this in June’ as ‘Griffin had started panhandling outside her old store,’ Willamette Week writes. Neighbors have set up a relief fund.”

– Anita Bartholomew

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