A recent lawsuit brought before the U.S. District Court in New York offers readers a glimpse into a battle raging behind the scenes in traditional publishing. The dispute, between authors and publishers, has been going on for several years and there are times it affects which titles you’re able to get as e-books.
Much of the e-book market is for new titles, but by no means all. The first e-books I wanted to load onto my new tablet were classics I hoped to reread but found too bulky to lug around in print form and old favorites I wanted to revisit.
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However, if I wanted to reread the 1973 YA classic “Julie of the Wolves” on my iPad and I was shopping before 2011, I would have been out of luck. The author of that novel (about an Eskimo girl who runs away from home to live with a pack of wolves), Jean Craighead George, could not come to terms with HarperCollins, the longtime publisher of “Julie.” Like most large, traditional publishers, HarperCollins insisted that George accept a 25 percent royalty on digital sales of her book, a cut George considered too small. Instead, George opted for Open Road Integrated Media, a company founded with the express purpose of bringing backlist titles to the e-book marketplace. Open Road offered George a deal in which she received half of the proceeds from the sale of “Julie of the Wolves.”
HarperCollins then sued, claiming it retained the right to publish “Julie” as an e-book, and — because of the wording of George’s 1970s contract — they won. But the results (and the rather complex finer points) of that particular case are less important that the essence of George’s choice: 25 or 50 percent. At one time, several publishers allowed 50 percent royalties on e-book sales, but today, the five biggest book publishers are holding the line at 25 percent.
Authors and their agents are fighting tooth and claw to move back that line. Their argument, as expressed by Susan Golomb, agent for such writers as Jonathan Franzen and William Vollmann, is that, with an e-book, “all the hard costs of publishing have evaporated. No printing, binding, warehousing, shipping. They have no costs.” Many authors are willing to hold out on agreeing to the publication of e-books until publishers’ terms improve.
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While literary agents tend to be vocal on this topic, the publishers I contacted, with the exception of Dennis Loy Johnson, publisher of Melville House Books, were unwilling to speak on the record. As a small press, Melville House pays even smaller e-book royalties than the majors: 20 percent. However, Johnson says that e-books constitute such a tiny part of the company’s sales that this has not been a great bone of contention. “Showrooming is real,” Johnson said, referring to book buyers’ habit of browsing in physical bookstores to find out about interesting new titles, then going online to purchase an e-book at a lower price. “In a way, the print book is an advertisement for the e-book and the e-book royalties subsidize the expense of getting those print books out to the stores where people can discover it.”
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Publishers also argue that the money they make on backlist titles like “Julie of the Wolves” funds the risks they take in publishing new authors. They see it as a model a bit like that of a health insurance company, where the contributions of people who use fewer services even out the costs of the people who use more.
Link to the rest at Salon and thanks to James for the tip.