Friday, August 08, 2014

a variety of thoughts on Hachette/Amazon... and on ebook royalties

Yesterday, after a hell of a lot of careful analysis, discussion, debate and argument among our volunteer leadership, I had a staff member press publish on The Writers' Union of Canada's public statement about the ongoing, and increasingly nasty dispute between publishing giant Hachette Book Group and online retailing giant The disagreement between these two companies is in its fourth (fifth?) month right now, and several new salvos of ammunition will fly tomorrow when an ad hoc group of 900 or so international authors publishes an ad in the New York Times calling for peace.

Quite predictably, I arrived at the office this morning to find criticism of the TWUC statement in my e-mail in-box. Also quite predictably, that criticism came from every conceivable direction. TWUC had been too hard on Amazon and/or Hachette. TWUC had been nowhere near hard enough on Amazon and/or Hachette. TWUC had given independent booksellers a free ride. TWUC favours traditionally published authors over self-published authors. Vice-versa. Etc.

I also found praise in my in-box, but you know how it is... one little blemish can define the whole apple.

This posting is not a complaint. I like blemishes on my apples (means they're real). My mind was clear when I signed the contract for this job. I knew what I was getting into. I chose this industry for my career BECAUSE it is an industry of ideas, of thinking (careful and otherwise), of opinions (both the half- and fully-cooked variety) well-constructed and firmly issued. That's how real people operate and, for the time being anyway, this is an industry of real people.

I believe strongly in the TWUC statement because it focuses on a call for decent behaviour in the marketplace (from all players), the value (rather than the price) of books and authorship, and a fact-based understanding of a changing business. It's very easy to see this issue split between two opposing sides, and I think it would be very easy to pick one or the other side and splash around madly in the rhetoric of that particular camp. TWUC created its own side, the side it believes it is asked to represent. The fact that many folks within and without TWUC feel uncomfortable with this or that aspect of the statement tells me we got the words in it just.. about.. absolutely.. correct.

The Amazon/Hachette fight also gave TWUC the opportunity to focus on some math it has been doing about author royalties on ebooks. Considering the long history of publishing and bookselling, the market for ebooks is still in its infancy, which means that the hard costs for ebook production and distribution are perhaps not fully fleshed out. Certainly an author puts in just as much personal investment of money and time into writing a book whether it ends up on paper, pixel or both.

I love that the self-publishing universe is expanding, I love that many authors are making big bucks in that universe, and I'm dedicated to helping TWUC's self-publishing members with their careers as best I can. All that said, I believe in the ongoing value of traditional publishing - the real value, the numbers value. When I sign with a traditional publisher (as I have), I am relieved to not have to do the work they have agreed to do, and I want to feel the business deal we strike for that work is fair for both of us. So, I do the math. At the moment, my math is telling me that a 25% author royalty on ebooks is too low.

I'd love to hear what others think of the math, and I'm pretty sure that means I will hear folks tell me it's wrong for one reason or another.* Okay. The royalty math page on the TWUC website, like the public statement about Hachette/Amazon, is about discussion and dialogue.

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*The numbers for the royalty math presentation do not come out of thin air, btw. We consulted widely across the industry on this. 

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