Assumptions and Disintermediation

“To think that the publisher’s plan for the book doesn’t include all forms is mistaken. The cost of producing a book–editing, acquisition (ie paying the writer and his or her agent), design, marketing, overhead–is spread out over all the forms, the hardbound, the paperback, the ebook, the audiobook, large print, etc.”
— Author Janet Fitch

“You also have to take into consideration the price of the hardcover. Yes, it’s cheap to make a digital book but it’s expensive to present a book in hardcover.”
— Roxana Robinson, Authors Guild President

“Their “total pie” is really just a piece of the pie. “Total revenue” on an ebook is only part of the “total revenue” for a new release book.”
— Michael Cader

Here are three quotes framing the industry’s treatment of digital as but one part of an overall picture. The statement is true but (and here’s the kicker) it’s only true for the author, not the publisher unless the author allows it. The assumption that a book is one product with varying delivery mechanisms is wrong. It’s actually three products. I know this because the only way a publisher can have those full range of offerings to spread costs across is if the author sells them those rights. Separately.

There are three basic sets of rights involved (many more if you get all granular down into translations, overseas markets, what have you. I think it was Lee Child who said Amazon represents something like 11 of the 97 markets he sells his books in). At its root, there are three basic products the author is selling as a bundle: print rights, digital rights and audio rights. Everything else, for the most part, stems from these three forms. The question I have is why do so many writers feel it’s not only necessary to sell them as a bundle to the same entity, but to operate under some illusion that it’s not even a bundle at all? There is no reason whatsoever (other than publisher obstinance) why you can’t sell the print rights to one place, digital rights to another and audio rights to a third. Not one.

My take on this has been pretty clear; I do not believe inextricably tying print and digital together is the correct course of action. Further, I absolutely do not want the same entity handling both my print and digital products. That will inevitably result in handicapping one format to benefit the other, as many publishers are doing right now by trying to stifle ebooks to some degree in order to support their print infrastructure. It doesn’t support print because it doesn’t address the online commerce issue which is what’s really hurting bookstores. And it damages the growth potential of your digital business by anchoring it within the far-more-expensive print cost structure. Newspapers cut their own throats by trying to do this exact thing.

I understand why publishers would want the full range of rights for a book, and that made some sense when print was dominant to the point of largely being all there was. What I don’t understand anymore is why writers would still want one entity to have all those rights? Sell the print rights alone and say this is your one job, focus on generating sales for print only. Do the same with digital (or handle them yourself).

Publishers won’t willingly go along with this but tough. Don’t give them the option unless they’re paying a premium for the full bundle. But to accept contracts that are tangibly identical to what they’ve always been with potentially extremely lucrative ebook rights thrown in at largely no additional cost is just not smart. Writers need to quit assuming that a “book” is one product in multiple formats and see it for what it is; multiple products, each needing a different cost structure and level of expertise to properly exploit. Stop just tossing digital rights in with a deal from a company with print expertise. Likewise, don’t toss print rights into a deal with a company with digital expertise. Find the best party for each specific product (or do it yourself).

The buzzword of the 21st century is disintermediation. Bundled arrangements produce inefficiency now. You’re willingly undercutting yourself by selling all your rights to one entity. There’s also the matter of rights reversions. If a publisher is producing print sales for me but their digital sales are lagging, why should my digital rights not have its own separate threshold for reversions? If this were the case, a publisher couldn’t effectively hamstring one format to help another without risking losing the rights to that format. And vice versa, if digital is booming but print isn’t producing, those print rights should revert on their own merits without regard to the performance of other formats. Publishers will hate, hate, hate this, which is all the more reason why we should demand disintermediation of different categories of rights within any publishing contract.

The next writer who so easily spouts the line that the publishers’ plan is spread across all formats should stop and think how that can even come about. They can only do it if you willingly sell them all those rights as a bundle. Your choice to sign a contract like that is what creates an environment where these divergent products are intertwined. It’s not a foregone conclusion out of necessity but a willful business decision by you. And it’s very likely not even in your best interest or the interest of maximizing revenue across all formats. Stop assuming and start looking at what’s actually possible. I think you’ll find things are no longer as the industry at large would like them to appear to be.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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Published in: on September 25, 2014 at 11:58 am  Comments (5)  
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  1. If, according to Roxanne Robinson, hardcovers are so “expensive to present,” then quit producing them.

    Stick with paperbacks and ebooks, or follow the advice in this post.

    • I was just thinking today, if Hachette had split their print and ebook business into separate entities, each with its own autonomy, there’d be no dispute with Amazon. The ebook side would’ve cut a deal long ago without the weight of having to worry about impacting print, and the print side would be well down the road on figuring out how to stay relevant without being able to handicap the ebook, which is what they should’ve been doing in the first place. Really, they’re two separate markets. Tying them together is doing damage to both. And it’s giving Amazon (and other retailers) leverage against them. It’s pretty widely accepted that ebooks are the main bone of contention between them. But look where Amazon is pressuring them, shipping and preorders, directed at print. And Hachette is arguing for higher ebook prices on new releases, at least, to shield print. It’s self destructive.

      • Which is why I love your take on the “disintermediation” of print and ebooks, Dan … masterful.

        But I’ve always thought, what need do we have for the hardcover now, except to produce specifically for historical libraries etc…?

        Paperbacks last “long enough” to read over and over again, if cared for. They “present” (Roxanne’s word, not mine) the book just fine.

        As book publishing technology improves (print being a technology as well), I can foresee a transition away from the hardcover completely.

        Then, these excuses being made about “how hard it is to run a publishing business” will be eliminated. Not that you haven’t done a good job of challenging them in this post, of course.

        It is self destructive indeed.

      • Don’t underestimate the book (or shelves of them, anyway) as an interior decorating fetish. I think hardcovers will have a solid market for a good while yet. There’s still a ton of people who haven’t gone all digital. And depending on what happens with POD, trade paperbacks probably have a good bit of life let yet. Mass market paperbacks are toast, though, unless they go supercheap, 150-pg thin books with cheap material for 99 cents or something. That might not even work. There’s material to work with, I think, for a long term sustainable print market if they’d just get down to business, leave the ebook side to its own devices and quit pretending like the wolf isn’t really at the door for print.

  2. Solid points Dan.

    I think there will always be a market for hardcovers, but that market is going to change (not only because of digital).

    As for paperbacks, yeah I agree with you that the “mass market” paperback might be toast, in certain genres.

    But from personal experience from reading over 150 books last year (about half cover to cover), I wait for the paperback intentionally.

    I’m not the entire market, for sure, but to me the hardcover is all presentation. I can get the same entertainment value from paperback for way less money.

    Notice, I didn’t mention digital. I’m not a Kindle user, and digital (to me) has a LONG way to go before it gets my attention as an avid reader.

    I’m probably the exception rather than the rule, as ebook sales statistics seem to show.

    Thanks for your engagement today Dan. I appreciate it. 🙂


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