Who Pays Whom, Part IV

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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. πŸ™‚

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…

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6 comments to Who Pays Whom, Part IV

  • I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s doom and gloom. It’s something to think about and something that all aspiring novelists should think hard on. My biggest concern is that the current WIP I’m working on now, a slightly non-traditional Space Opera Sci-Fi Romance with strong romantic elements may not have many traditional markets that I can send to, though there are plenty of E-Book markets.

    The one in question I’ve been eying is Samhain Publishing, which takes fantasy and sci-fi (including space opera) romance titles with strong romantic elements, grants 40% off cover on ebooks sold through their store, 30% sold through 3rd party vendors, and then publishes to print around a year after the ebook goes live with 8% of the cover price on single-author print books, with a 3% reserve against returns. Their print titles can also be found in B&N, Borders, etc.

    However, I also haven’t gone yet and done much research on traditional romance publishers to know how many are out there to send this to. I’ve done a cursory look, but there are far less traditional romance publishers than other traditional publishers. Even less that take space opera sci-fi. I would love, no, that seems too mild, LOVE, to get published traditionally, but if there’s no one to take the submission my options are wait and hope a traditional market opens up or that a new one rises, which could take a year, or ten, or try one of the ebook pubs. This is especially true if I get the rejection letters that say, this is great, awesome, wonderful, but it isn’t something we tend to publish.

    The other option, which is the one I’d probably do instead, is just rip the sex elements out entirely and look for a traditional sci-fi pub that takes space opera. I just feel like I’m doing my career (yep, I consider it my career choice) an equal disservice if I just throw my work on a disk and say oh well, so much for all that lost time and effort, and wait who knows how many years until the right traditional market opens up. And if I have to pub through ebook under a pen name to keep it separate from my traditional name, then so be it. I was planning on that anyway.

    Another thing to think on, is that some works may not have many options as far as traditional publishing goes. Many of the people who do publish those titles that fall between what traditional publishers take are typically small press or ebook publishers, making your choices, ebook or throw it away and do something different.

    Though some of what you’ve been posting on the topic is, as you’ve said, your own opinion, it’s an informed opinion and gives potential authors something to think about, which is always a good thing. It’s not doom and gloom. Any decision requires knowledge of every angle, the pluses and the minuses and you’re giving writers plenty to ponder.

  • Interesting post, Catie. I’d love to discuss with you at some point (Probably off list or, better still, over beers when we finally meet in person) the efficacy of free online stuff. I know Cory and Neil have done well with this, but I think they’re both unique cases to some degree — Cory, because he has a huge online following that originally had little to do with his fiction, and Neil because, well, he’s Neil — and I wonder if their model would work for all of us. Anyway, I’d love to talk about it with you.

  • I’m one of those people who heard that American Gods was available online from the publisher for free. This was about a little over a year ago when I was actually staying in a hotel on business for about 3 weeks.

    I popped onto the publisher’s website while sitting in my hotel room and read the first 50 pages. I went out the next day to B&N and bought the paperback.

    I’m not published, but I agree completely about avoiding an e-publisher as my route towards publication. I want my story to be published the traditional way, by a major publisher, in print first, to be followed by an e-version for something like Kindle.

    Now, for short stories (which I don’t really write) I’m less concerned if the publication is an online magazine. While my short story goal would be to be published by Clarkesworld or Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, or someone else of that caliber, an online sale only would be okay by me.

    As for the whole overing the entire book for free, Tor Books is doing that now as well. What I want from an author online is the first chapter of each of their published books. Of course, providing Book One of a series for free online wouldn’t be so bad either. I know, if I really liked it, I would end up buying the paperback of it for my collectin.

    I like holding a book. No matter how cool or convenient an e-reader might be, there’s just something different, about having a physical book.

  • It’s interesting to hear your take on this, Catie. Thanks. Lynn Viehl has been posting on this subject this week. She’s on the opposite end of the spectrum that it is viable. She certainly agrees with you on its use as marketing with free giveaways. If anyone is interested in another perspective, see Lynn’s blog at http://www.pbackwriter.blogspot.com/

    I’ve just recently sold a novel to an e-pub that I’d been shopping around to agents/publishers for several years. Frankly, I’m very happy to have found it a home. These e-pub companies are becoming more and more legitimate, thanks to Ellora’s Cave, whose books, along with Samhain’s, you can purchase in a bookstore.

  • QUOTE: I like holding a book. No matter how cool or convenient an e-reader might be, there’s just something different, about having a physical book.

    Same here. I far prefer a physical book, which is one of the reasons why if I go into an e-pub route I’ll want that option of a print run as well. I’ve always wanted to have a print copy of my novels on a shelf. I’ve always wanted to go into a bookstore and check the shelves and see my book up there…maybe even tell someone else who is in that aisle that I wrote it. πŸ˜‰

    Besides, I can’t sign an e-book. πŸ˜‰

  • I love the print books, too, but it’s hard as heck to move them all when you change cities. I’m going to be buying more ebooks for that reason, as I’m likely to move again in April or May when our lease is up. For now, I’m going through boxes and getting rid of stuff to make it easier next time. I don’t know that I can bear to part with any more of my rpgs, though. πŸ™‚