If I had to describe how I see the publishing industry right now, I would call it a “seesaw.”
We can see very plainly the fear that people have of change also applies in business. The actions of publishing houses and agents since the e-book are clearly reactions to what they see as a threat to paper publishing. Practically every week I hear about another independent bookstore closing, one less venue to sell paper books. Many people are reacting to things like this simultaneously in different ways--some good, some scary.
In December, Random House decided they would take action by insisting it had the e-pub rights to the books it published. Many agents jumped on this and fought for their clients to maintain their e-pub rights.
In 2001 a federal court ruled that authors did not grant e-book rights to the publisher according to their original contracts. This seems to be holding up to this day. If you want your e-pub rights, and don’t explicitly grant them, you can have them. But this could get harder and harder. On the other side of that argument, I’ve heard that there are authors who don’t want their e-rights because they wouldn’t know what to do with them.
The Wylie Agency has recently started a new publishing line, Odyssey Editions, to e-publish its clients’ backlists--taking the publisher out of e-publishing and maximizing their clients’ profits. The publishers are trying to claim their e-pub rights to these backlist titles. We’ll have to wait and see what happens…
All this activity speaks loudly of big money in e-books. Those directly affected by it, the publishers of paper books, are trying to protect their future interests of staying in business. But we really have to ask if our electronic rights are any of their business. If we can help it, shouldn’t we writers hold onto our very profitable e-rights, as it seems to be in our best interest for making a living?
Traditional publishing houses are not paying the same royalties that an author could get from e-publishing independently. J. A. Konrath and the Authors Guild both break down the numbers.
As an unpublished writer working hard toward a career as a full time writer, the current publishing situation is daunting. I have an unpublished fantasy novel (still in revision) that I’m not quite sure what I will do with. It is impossible for me to make the best career move according to what I see going on, as I don’t know when I will publish it. And my decision will depend on the state of the industry when I do sell it (selling it could mean to a publisher or by myself). I have three different scenarios in my mind.
If I sold it in the next month or so, I would hold onto my e-pub rights and put in the time to launch it in electronic format myself, while, theoretically reaping the benefits of an advance and having copies on shelves in bookstores. I would get the most profit from my work. But, who knows for how much longer that will be possible. The scales could tip tomorrow for all we know.
If I market my book around but don’t sell it for another two years, none of this might actually matter. I could sell it and enter into a currently nonexistent standardized paper and e-book agreement where I won’t get a choice in the matter. However, this might not be the best scenario. What if paper books go completely “out of fashion” and no one buys the hard copies and the publisher still gets to keep most of the profit from the e-book sales? This type of agreement would lead to a growing independent book sales industry.
I could e-pub my book, no advance, and do the hard work of self promotion and make full proceeds off sales. But, working full time, would I have enough time and resources to do that much self promotion? I once heard about a new author, I cannot remember his name, who got an advance in the six-figure range. He immediately quit his day job and planned a massive self-promotion campaign. His explanation was that if he ever wanted to earn back his advance and see royalties he needed to sell a ton of books. I’m thinking I don’t have that kind of time or money. So this is not for me right now.
I’ll have to keep a close eye on the industry to make sure I get the best agreements I can for my work. I can see actively publishing authors having vastly different contracts from title to title depending on the current conditions. Maybe this is prime time for multiple book deals? Either way, the change won’t be over until the legal departments of publishers and agencies, and maybe even federal courts establish new standards. But who knows how long their deliberation will take and how it will affect e-publishing rights, traditional publishing houses, the role of the agent and most importantly the author. In the meantime, books are being sold every day under different circumstances.