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From Publisher’s Weekly… Holy Shemoly!

29 October 2013

For Major Publishers, Will Print No Longer Be the Norm?

Agents worries mount over contracts that don’t guarantee print editions.

Format has been a long-simmering topic of debate in book publishing, and the question of when, and if, a title is published in hardcover, paperback, and/or digital has become even more pressing as bricks-and-mortar bookstores dwindle and e-book sales grow. The idea that any standard deal from a major publisher guarantees a print format release—which was previously a foregone conclusion—is something agents no longer take for granted, with some expressing concern that the big houses are starting to hedge on print editions in contracts.

While e-book-only agreements are nothing new—all large publishers have imprints that are exclusively dedicated to digital titles—a handful of agents, all of whom spoke to PW on the condition of anonymity, said they’re worried that contracts from print-first imprints will increasingly come with clauses indicating that the publisher makes no guarantee on format. The agents say this is a new twist to the standard way of doing business.

Read the rest here.  Publishers Weekly

Julia Barrett


Agents, Big Publishing

32 Comments to “From Publisher’s Weekly… Holy Shemoly!”

  1. So… If tradpub no longer puts paper books in stores by default, why would you even go that route? That awesome marketing push they promise to do, but also cannot guarantee? 🙂

  2. If a poorly formatted ebook is all they’re going to bring to the table, what use are they?

    • The good news is that if they’re not releasing print books, they won’t be able to just OCR them to create a poorly formatted e-book.

      • Why would anyone OCR a recently released book anyway? If it’s recently released, it’s already digitized. Unless there is some publisher in the bowels of New York with a cast-iron press and a roll of paper, all publishing is digital these days. There’s no reason to scan a book that’s already available as ones and zeroes. The only reason to do so is for a really old title, or if you’re scanning a book you don’t own. 🙂

        • No-one in their right mind would. But wasn’t there an article or blog post here in the last few months complaining about newly released books that had just been OCR-ed badly from the print copies?

          • I had a poorly OCR-ed copy of The Disposessed (Ursala LeGuin). I have heard others mention similar problems with other books that deserved better treatment.

  3. Wim nailed it. Though I wouldn’t give a rip about whether they did paper copies or not, if only they did marketing. When will publishers realize that marketing is the most valuable thing they can bring to the table?

    I guess when it becomes obvious that authors realize it.

    • The thing is, for most books from old-line publishers, the ‘marketing’ begins and ends with getting those paper books into stores. If they’re not doing that, they have no idea how they could market it.

      • Correct.
        They know how to market to their customers: chain bookstore buyers. All three of them.
        Everybody else?
        Not. A. Clue.
        Stock it and it will sell is their mantra.

  4. I love how PW talks to agents (anonymously) and Publishers (who refused to answer), but does not talk to writers at all. It simply states how writers will feel about this, without bothering to check in with them.

    Old school. Writers are pawns to move around and make money off of, not major players who should be consulted.

    As for this change, Publishers are smart to try to lock up all formats in their contracts, and writers would be insane to sign those contracts.

    Writers should stay away from any contract that signs away e-book rights. It would be exactly like signing a contract that takes all control of their book away from them, and then fleeces thems of 80% of the book’s profits for the life of their book.

    Exactly like. As in, that’s what that contract will do.

  5. “Contracts that are vague on format give publishers the wiggle room to opt out of costlier-to-produce print books, which generally have higher price points than e-books and, in turn, bring authors higher royalties.”

    Wait, what?

    I know they play games with ebook royalties, but are they still at a point where an ebook with marginal cost of zero pays less than a dead-tree book?

    Looking at random, I note that Stephen King’s new book Dr. Sleep is $10.99 ebook, $30 hardcover list, $18.00 hardcover at Amazon, $18.36 B&N, $22.50 at Target.

    If Scribner makes more money selling a book at $22.50 than selling an ebook at $10.99, and pays more money to Stephen King to do it, things are worse than I thought.

    • Good point.

    • I took that to be a statement on digital royalty vs print royalty structure (% of net vs % of sell price) and only about author (and therefore agent) income NOT publisher income between the formats.

    • If Scribner makes more money selling a book at $22.50 than selling an ebook at $10.99, and pays more money to Stephen King to do it, things are worse than I thought.

      Stephen King, and probably many other big authors, have special contracts with their publisher. So they’re a poor example to use.

      According to an article I read a year or two back, King splits profits 50:50 with the publisher and gets his rights back after a few years.

      • That’s what I mean: King has got to be at the top of the heap as far as benefits, and still when you look at the pricing structure the claim I quoted makes no sense. For midlist writers, what few remain, it has to be even more lopsided. There’s just no way a publisher can economically justify the situation described: either the article is grievously in error, or, as I said, things are even worse than I thought.

    • I agree, the article is talking about the amount that goes to the author, not the publisher. And authors generally make less on e-books than on print (especially hardcover and trade) thanks to the 25% of NET scheme. For example, my NY tradpub house uses a *distributor* for their digital titles, who then takes a cut of every sale. Yep. I’m sure the cost to produce the ebook also takes into account formatting and DRM (spendy stuff) which then goes out of the profits.

      That said, the royalty on my e-books is a squinch higher than my mass-market paperbacks. Looking at my (crazily convoluted) twice-yearly royalty statements, I make about 10-11% of list on my digital sales. That’s a couple percentage points higher than the mass market titles. But still, publishers are RAKING in the cash because agents and authors didn’t stand firm when the e-book royalty rate dropped. And I think a bunch of them didn’t catch the fine distinction between list and net, until it was too late…

    • Marc,

      See my latest post. The bestsellers operate under very different rules than other writers.

  6. I’m mildly surprised by this, though I shouldn’t be. Yes, they’ve always tried to get all rights. That’s what one had an agent for. I thank my agent for the fact that I now have control over some formats of my traditionally published titles. And e-rights are crucial to hold on to. As for print, I expect they will prolong their rights by offering the books POD.
    But print books will continue. I have many readers who refuse to buy a Kindle or read an e-book. I want my titles in both formats.

  7. Maybe times have changed, but some years back I was told that the most-sought-after reviewers would look at hardbacks, but not paperbacks — thereby pretty much insuring most paperbacks wouldn’t get reviewed and, thus, wouldn’t sell. I wonder how reviewers feel about reading digital works.

    • I doubt any of the professional book reviewers would touch self-published books. On the other hands, since there are few venues left for their reviews (newspapers having eliminated their book pages), that isn’t a very great loss.
      (Though I do miss the reviews far more than anything else to do with trad. pubs.

  8. “Agent worries mount…”

    Schadenfreude is delicious.

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