Print This Post Print This Post
  • Author:
  • Published: Jul 15th, 2010
  • Category: Books
  • Comments: 36

Pass the Gestalt, Please

In the past two weeks I have heard forcefully stated pronouncements by agent Andrew Wylie and chair of the Society of Authors, Tom Holland, regarding ebook royalty rates.  A 50/50 share between author and publisher is the only possible outcome they can accept, citing the tired and somewhat old argument we have heard before:

The publisher has little or no incremental out of pocket cost to create ebooks, therefore the income should be split in the same manner as subsidiary rights, which is generally 50/50.

The average person would be hard pressed to disagree—certainly in this day and age the digital file created to make a print book cannot cost much to convert to an ebook. Even the DRM, hosting, and file management costs must be de minimis when compared to the cost of paper, printing, binding, warehouse, and shipping. And ebooks have no returns!

Ebooks aren’t a secondary or tertiary income stream for publishers like subsidiary rights; ebook income replaces hardcover and/or paperback income.

But there is a huge flaw in this view, as it is built on the self-serving and reductive assumption that ebooks can and should be viewed as separate from the book’s overall economy. By attacking ebook royalties in this manner, a trap is set by those seeking to maximize short-term profits at the expense of all else. The object of this ploy is to dissect the intellectual property into as many different pieces as possible and negotiate them on the open market in order to maximize the “deal.”

The problem with that approach is that successful and coherent publishing is not the sum of individual publishing rights, but rather the gestalt work presented coherently to a global audience. Viewing the ebook out of the context of the rest of the work gets us nowhere. We must understand how ebooks fit into the publishing ecosphere and only then can we determine what the right royalty should be.

To begin, let’s establish what an ebook isn’t—a subsidiary right.

Publishing contracts grant two kinds of rights to publishers—primary rights and subsidiary rights. Primary rights grant the publisher the right to create and sell a product, be it in print, audio, electronic, or any other form that the publisher invests and distributes directly to buyers, resellers, and/or agents.

Subsidiary rights, (aka subrights, rights, licensing) enable the publisher to license the work to a third party for the purpose of that party creating a new work—one that the publisher may not be equipped or desire to do. A good example of a classic subsidiary right is translations. Traditionally, the publisher shares the income it receives from this license 50/50 with the author, as the publisher does not bear the expense of creating and selling the translated work.

Looking at ebooks, publishers have clearly, universally, and without hesitation, put ebooks into the primary rights category. We all create ebooks and sell them directly and through resellers and agents. Any implication that ebooks are a subsidiary right is flat out wrong. Furthermore, we not only exercise a primary right in selling ebooks, we also make them available at the same time as the print books. This means that ebooks are competing with print books for readers . Ebooks aren’t a secondary or tertiary income stream for publishers like subsidiary rights; ebook income replaces hardcover and/or paperback income.

That’s right, ebook income replaces print income. So if the hardcover is out at $30 ($15 net after 50% reseller discount) and the ebook is available through an agency model at $15 ($10.50 net of agency 30% commission), the publisher is earning $4.50 less for every ebook purchased instead of the print book.

So how does that translate to author royalties? The author of a hardcover trade book is usually paid 10% – 12.5% of the suggested retail price—so on a hardcover sale the author of a $30 book will net $3.00 – $3.75. If one applied that same royalty to the ebook sold at $15, the author would receive $1.50 – $1.75.  However royalties for ebooks can range from 15% net receipts for front list, to up to 35% of net receipts for backlist. Therefore, a $15 agency model ebook will earn an author anywhere from $1.58 – $3.68.

Now think about the royalties paid for this work. The hardcover with its $30 suggested retail price earns the author $3.00 – $3.75 per copy sold.  If the publisher paid the same list royalties on the $15 ebook as it did for the $30 hardcover, the author would earn $1.50 – $1.75.  But authors are paid anywhere from $1.58 up to $3.68 on the $15 ebook, nearly as much as the $30 hardcover!

Publishers have seen a marked acceleration in the practice of disaggregating rights to works.

So anyone requesting a 50% share of net proceeds for ebook royalties is looking his or her publisher straight in the eye and saying, “I don’t care that a $15 ebook replaces that $30 hardcover. I don’t care that I was earning $3.68 on that $30 sale. I now want $5.25, full well knowing that it is $1.57 more than hardcover earnings!”

What kind of message is this sending to publishers? Is there a new willingness to explore new models and new ways of doing business? A new scheme that replaces high advances with high royalties? The answer is, of course, NO WAY! The advances on new books are as immutable as ever and one would be laughed out of contention for any book where such a trade-off is proposed. So what is going on here? How can such outrageous requests be made with a straight face? It all comes from a long established program of negotiations that I call “win at all cost.”

When one decides on a win at all cost negotiation strategy, one is looking only at the deal on the table and how to get the absolute most for oneself, and ostensibly one’s clients.  One of the most effective tactics in win at all cost negotiation is divide and conquer. Divide and conquer purposely disaggregates issues and boils them down to one issue at a time negotiations. Examples of this in publishing are when territorial rights are sold separately for English language books, when e-rights or translation rights are sold for additional advance income or, worse, withheld and sold elsewhere, etc. Publishers have seen a marked acceleration in the practice of disaggregating rights to works.

The net result of this practice is that no one can create anywhere near a coherent marketing and publicity program for trade books as no one knows who owns what. Furthermore, it is impossible to align efforts, as competing publishers often own different portions of rights to the same work. It’s the authors who suffer in the end.

Recently a colleague told me of a letter he received from an author bitterly complaining that the publisher in question had not been selling his book in the UK. The publisher responded, in a state of incredible frustration, that the author’s agent had withheld UK rights in order to try and extract an additional deal for the UK. This strategy backfired, no one bought the rights in the UK without corresponding US rights, and the author and the publisher were harmed in the process.

Divide and conquer is a very dangerous game as it tries to create the greatest short-term value for a work by selling off the sum of the individual rights. However, a book’s value is a very gestalt concept. The whole work has FAR greater value than the sum of the individual rights. Allowing each individual part, or right, to be disaggregated and auctioned to the highest bidder serves only those who make profit from short-term gain.

Related articles by Zemanta

Enhanced by Zemanta

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

© 2009 Black Plastic Glasses. All Rights Reserved.

This blog is powered by Wordpress and a guitar player's Blues Licks website.