Agent Andrew Wylie (among others) has been vocal about adjusting e-book royalties, essentially suggesting that e-book revenue be treated more like a subsidiary right, with a 50/50 (at least) revenue split. This week, former Oxford University Press VP and soon-to-be Bloomsbury Managing Director Evan Schnittman takes down that argument on his blog, Black Plastic Glasses.
“To begin, let’s establish what an e-book isn’t—a subsidiary right,” Schnittman writes. For one thing, he explains, cheaper e-books compete with more expensive print editions. “So, anyone requesting a 50% share of net proceeds for e-book royalties is looking his or her publisher straight in the eye and saying, ‘I don’t care that a $15 e-book replaces that $30 hardcover. I don’t care that I was earning $3.68 on that $30 sale. I now want $5.25, full well knowing that it is $1.57 more than hardcover earnings!”
As reluctant as I am to step between these two heavyweights, here goes: why should e-books be subject to a royalty system developed for a bygone era? E-books are different. Sorry, but there it is. Their costs are different, their production, sales, distribution, their capabilities are different (including tools and multimedia), and what consumer’s buy is different. I think this last point is often overlooked: e-books are generally licensed, not owned. As a consumer, I can’t re-sell my e-books, for example, and chances are, when I switch reading devices or when the next tech wave hits I’m going to have to buy a lot of my books again, and so is my local library. In fact, it’s hard not to imagine the day coming very soon when e-books are the primary edition, when mainstream authors widely write works specifically for, and optimally consumed, in digital form. So the bigger question may be: when do we start treating print like a subsidiary right?
Meanwhile, another factor jumped out at me here: good ol’ fashioned competition. Andrew Wylie is asking for better splits because he can. New digital publishing ventures are springing up everywhere (Open Road, anyone) and these ventures have embraced the 50/50 revenue split. Richard Nash’s still percolating new venture, Cursor, is even proposing three-year, renewable deals. Amazon offers self-published writers like J.A. Konrath a 70% royalty. And, does anyone want to venture a guess how Google Editions might move the needle? Why wouldn’t Andrew Wylie threaten to take his digital business elsewhere? It isn’t like he won’t have a lot of options in the coming years. And isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t competition make industries stronger, and more innovative?