Okay. Today’s topic is e-books, and there are several things I’m not going to talk about when I mean “e-books”. The first is e-readers like the Kindle and Sony E-Reader. My opinion on e-readers is generally that they’re good, but it’s not the topic at hand.
Nor am I going to talk about web-publication that people do on their own. There are people who make a living off that, I know, or who supplement their day job income nicely with it. I wouldn’t half mind a piece of that pie myself, but it’s not today’s topic, either.
What I want to talk about is books for which the electronic rights have been sold.
In this day and age, if you sell a book to a traditional publisher, they’re likely to want electronic rights, too.
As a rule, I’m cool with that. But at the same time, about once a month some helpful soul emails to tell me they’ve found all my books available via BitTorrent, and so there’s a part of me which would just as soon keep the electronic rights and distribute the books on the internet for free myself.
This is particularly true because I generally feel that traditional publishers are getting away with highway robbery with regards to the royalty percentages on electronic books, which are frequently on par with the percentages for a mass market paperback novel. The problem with this is that e-books have very little by way of overhead production costs and don’t require warehousing, so it seems rather squallingly unfair that the publisher should take 95% of the profits. This, ultimately, is a fight you ask your agent to bring to the table.
To complicate matters, it’s become fairly clear (to me, at least) that giving books away online drives real-world sales. Cory Doctorow, champion of Content Wants To Be Free, has made this pretty clear. Baen Books has brought up a significant amount of backlist by giving it away online and finding that people actually go buy hardcopies. Neil Gaiman (who, yes, I realize is sort of in a league of his own) saw sales of AMERICAN GODS jump 300% in the 3 months his publisher agreed to put it up online for free. So I actually believe that it’s counterproductive to be selling e-books when they prove to be such good free marketing tools. All of this is, and will probably continue to be, a sticking point between authors and traditional publishers for some time to come.
“Ah!” I can hear you say now, “But electronic publishers who understand this give authors 50% of the royalties off their e-books!”
Many of them do, it’s true. And that’s basically the only aspect of e-pub-only that I have any use for.
Before I go on, I want to make it clear that the following is my opinion. It’s a very strong opinion, and I’m not going to change my mind if you try arguing with me. Nor, I imagine, am I going to change your mind if you feel inclined to argue with me, so overall I think we should skip that step. You don’t have to agree.
I’m defining an electronic publisher as someone who buys the rights to produce your novel online only, or who buys the online rights with the longer term good intention of moving it to print publication.
I feel–with one exception–that this is worth a bucket of warm spit. I feel very, very strongly that almost any given writer is better off retaining all rights to their work and waiting until they find a traditional publisher. I feel that you are much better off having a backlist of books you can potentially sell than you are having e-pub credits.
Having a backlist of material means once you’ve sold that first book to a traditional publisher, you can potentially sell the pile of other things you’ve written. (In my case, for example, that was HEART OF STONE, which led into the sale of the entire Negotiator Trilogy, and THE QUEEN’S BASTARD, as well as a YA fantasy I still need to do revisions on before trying to sell.) Had I sold any of those to e-publishers, I would not have all the rights to go to a traditional publisher with, and I feel that would have been vastly to my detriment.
Because honestly, guys, nobody at a traditional publishing house cares if you’ve been e-pubbed. They’ll be a little embarrassed for you, not impressed (and I say this because I’ve seen editor and agent expressions upon being told someone is e-pubbed). It will not in any way help you break through into traditional print publication. It’s much more likely to be a wrench in the monkeyworks, because your traditional publisher is going to want those rights, and if they’re tied up somewhere else that’s going to be a little less appealing.
There are small presses who buy e-rights initially and have the longer-term hope and plan to go into print publication. I understand the temptation there. I really do. It might all work out, and someone thinks the book is good enough to buy, and you’ll be published. And hell, it might all work out; what do I know? But I absolutely and relentlessly believe you’re better off waiting for a big house if you’re looking for a long-term publishing career.
The one genuine exception I can think of is Ellora’s Cave, which is an online publisher of erotic romance. Ellora’s Cave cornered the erotica e-book market early on, and they’ve done exceedingly well. I know writers who make a living off their EC e-books, or who make more off their e-books than they do at their day jobs.
There’s a fairly clear line of argument that follows this which suggests that if Ellora’s Cave can do it, other places can too. On the other hand, EC has a very specific niche market and they got into the game early, somewhere around Y2K. They’ve made themselves a viable choice for romantic erotica, and in their particular case, I think probably being an e-publisher works for them: people (Americans, anyway) tend to be shyer about buying erotica than they might about buying, say, a mystery novel, so the at-the-computer privacy aspect of it may well have lent itself partially to EC’s success. But they’ve also had a whole lot of competitors have come and gone in the meantime, so it’s not *just* the titillation factor.
It’s clearly possible for a publishing revolution to happen, and for the dynamic to shift dramatically toward e-publication as a viable means of literary success. Obviously without writers who are willing to take a shot at it, it can’t happen. But the Internet is full of hopeful writers, and the marketing factor of just having a book in the bookstore to happen across and pick up makes it so much more likely to be discovered. I just believe that, for all its flaws, that’s still the best way to make a living as a writer, and that career-oriented writers are doing themselves a disservice by accepting something less than that.
I think next week maybe I’ll try to talk about publishing outside of the box. I’m feeling a little depressed at all the doom and gloom I feel like I’m putting out right now…