I’ve been asked to be on a panel at the RT Booklovers Convention in LA in April of next year. The topic is money and digital publishing. I’m really excited about this because I have to qualms about talking openly and honestly about money and writing (and how much there is or isn’t).
However, I think it’s about time we dispensed with the notion that there are “epublished” authors and “print-published” authors, and that these are two separate and distinct animals. Because the reality is, we’ve long passed that point. These days, pretty much every author is epublished; there are differences in the payment models for those who are published in both print and digital and those who are published primarily or only in digital, but the bottom line is that no author in today’s market can afford to ignore the “e” side of the business.
And yet, apparently a surprising number of authors still think digital doesn’t matter to them. Kristin Nelson noted in a blog post the other day that her authors’ digital sales represent a tiny fraction of total sales (although I don’t think she meant to suggest this means digital royalty clauses or the availability of books in digital format is irrelevant), and I suspect for many, many authors and books, that will remain true for some time, especially if print copies of their books continue to be available on the shelves.
But here’s the thing–books only stay on the shelves for a certain period of time, particularly mass-market paperbacks. Unless you happen to be a perenially bestselling author, chances are pretty good that only one or two of your most recent books are readily available in print at any given time. Back in the days before ebooks, if readers wanted to get copies of your backlist after reading the currently-available book, they had to ask the retailer to order a copy or (if it was totally out-of-print) go combing through used bookstores. In more recent years, they could go to Amazon or other online retailers and hope a copy was in stock or availabled for purchase used. And, of course, they can still do that–if they really want your book in print.
Nowadays, however, there’s an alternative. It’s called the ebook. And it is a wonderful, wonderful thing for authors…if they don’t squander it by allowing themselves to believe it doesn’t matter and that they shouldn’t be aggressive about their digital rights clauses. Because ebooks are the “long tail” of your publishing career. Your book may be out of “print” but it’s always available in digital format, and that is a huge benefit to you because it means you can continue selling copies of that book virtually in perpetuity. Sure, at the front end of your contract, your digital sales may represent only a tiny proportion of the total. But over the long haul, it’s the digital books that are going to keep bringing in the money. Seven years from the date of your books’ release, the only copies you may be selling are digital, but guess what? Those put money in your pocket. Money you wouldn’t get otherwise at all.
On the other side of that coin, however, is this potentially damaging fact: if your contract says your book remains “in print” so long as it is available for sale in any format, including digital, before your rights revert, you can be stuck with a publisher who has locked you into poor digital royalty terms, practically for life. (ETA: Just after this posted, Bob Mayer posted a Twitter link to this post on exactly this topic! Am I allowed to say great minds think alike?) It used to be that, in order to retain the rights to their topselling authors, publishers had to rerelease their backlist in print every seven or so years. But look carefully at your contracts today. Is that still the case? My bet is for a lot of us who signed contracts in the past few years, all the publisher has to do is ensure a digital version is available for sale. There may not even be a requirement that a minimum number of copies sell in order for the publisher to retain those rights.
You can see, I think, why none of us can afford to ignore digital publishing, digital royalty rates, and rights reversion clauses. Ebooks are here to stay and we need to embrace that, whether the bulk of our sales today are digital or not.