Aliske Webb has been an unpublished author, a self-published author, a NYC published author and is now the Publisher of Bookmice.com, a royalty-paying electronic publisher of quality fiction and nonfiction. Her email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
This month: It's Only Worth The Paper It's Written On. For authors considering electronic publishing for the first time, contract terms are often a major concern and raise different issues than traditional paper publishing.. There are two areas that usualElectronic publishing probably has more shades of gray and permutations of contract than in paper publishing and it's no wonder that authors are confused. Fortunately, most e-publishers make a sample copy of their contract available on their website for review (or will willingly send one) and it is worth an author's time to look at several to see how diverse the market is. Contracts seem to vary as much as the e-publishers themselves seem to operate with different business models. Some publishers ask for all rights, some only electronic rights and some make it very specific what e-rights they are contracting. Some charge author fees, some don't.
Some "e-publishers" work on a non-exclusive basis and allow an author to list their books with many different e-publishers' sites. Here I would like to draw some distinctions and perhaps eventually we will need some new terms to categorize the various types of "publication" that take place electronically.
I receive the most questions concerning the exclusivity of our contract. Some authors seem to feel that the business works differently because it is electronic, and I always have to explain that normally in paper publishing exclusivity is a given--HarperCollins would never sign a contract with an author and then allow that author to walk down the street and sign with Random House. The assumption is that the publisher goes to the great expense of editing, formatting, promoting and otherwise producing the book and therefore expects to recoup that expense and make a profit and pay royalties. (That publisher then distributes the books through various chains, eg Ingram and on to the bookstores themselves. The publisher rarely, if ever, sells directly to the consumer. E-publishers on the other hand often sell directly to the public, and also through distribution networks like ebook sellers and Amazon, Barnes&Noble et al.)
The same principles apply to e-publishing. Just being on the 'Net doesn't make it free. Full service e-publishers have many of the same expenses of editing and production. Granted there are no paper costs but there are costs of website design and maintenance, investment in technology and programs, plus things like a retail credit card/shopping cart functions which paper publishers don't have. The after-production costs of paper book storage and delivery don't affect e-publishers, but e-publishers tend to pay higher royalties so the bottom line to most e-publishers is that the initial "cost" per book is comparable. (However, over the long term production costs are greatly reduced for electronic books, but we are talking here of recouping the initial expense to publish because this affects two critical contract areas.)
By offering the author a non-exclusive contract, an e-publisher is acting more like a "distributor" than an actual publisher and in some cases may actually do no editing, formatting or production of the e-book. They simply take the book as it is presented by the author and place it for sale on their site. In this scenario, the author is actually the "publisher" of their own works and simply uses the "e-publishers" as a distribution network. And that is fine if they choose to do so. There is a case to be made that the more places you have a book for sale, the likelihood that you will sell more copies is greater. There is also a counter- argument that few authors can properly edit their work to an acceptable standard and therefore there is a threat to the quality of ebooks that will become available. It's an interesting argument both ways. And certainly e-book publishing can a does push the envelope of traditional business models.
However, my question would be, if a "publisher" allows an author to also sell through other sites, how do they expect to be reimbursed for their expenses of publishing the work, either that or, to turn it around, how much actual work is the publisher going to do on the author's behalf if the book is also available through other sources?
For some authors, who are capable of publishing their own work, including proper editing, formatting, and then promoting it etc., this works well and a non-exclusive contract basis would be acceptable. For many who don't or can't do all this, then they are probably wise to look at an exclusive arrangement with a single publisher who will do everything for them, as well as the distribution through to other ebook sellers. How Long Is A Piece Of String
The second issue is somewhat related to the first. In a traditional publishing contract the term normally ran until the book was "out of print" and could therefore tie up a writer's work indefinitely, as long as the publisher maintained print copies available. This has caused some problems for authors in the past trying to regain their rights to a work.
A different scenario happens with an e-book. Because there is no investment in paper and storage thereof and because an ebook only exists in cyberspace, an e-publisher could theoretically hold the rights forever, whether they ever sold a copy or not, as long as it was listed on their site. As a result, most e-publishing contracts have a definite length of term, usually from one to three years. Shorter-term contracts may sound better for authors, but I would question again, how much effort will a publisher make on the book's behalf if they have to recoup all their expenses within one year and show a profit on the book as well. In the small e-book market as it exists today, that seems highly unlikely. I am always wary of short-term thinking. It is probably more reasonable for a two or three year period for an e-book to show a justifiable return. And in the lifespan of a book (or a writer's life) that is a fairly short period of time.
Because the e-book market is so diverse, and as different publishers develop their own business strategies, I think the important point for an author considering any contract is to try to understand the ramifications behind every term and condition. Ask yourself, what does this really mean to the book? In most cases, in general, an e-publishing contract is more author-friendly than a traditional paper publishing contract and gives the author greater control over their work. However, with every degree of control comes a greater responsibility on the author's part to ensure the success of the book.
As with any contract, it is always a good idea to run it by your lawyer, preferably one who is at least familiar with paper publishing contracts and expectations. If nothing else, open a dialogue with the perspective publisher and ask for clarification and their business philosophy behind the contract terms.
There are further issues that don't affect paper publishing as much as they do electronic publication, such as the encryption of e-books in order to prevent copying/pirating of the work, retail pricing, the "platforms" or available formats the ebook will be produced in. An author would be wise to look beyond the contract at the e-publisher itself in terms of its reputation in the market, its ability to promote ebooks, and its flexibility and ability to change as new technologies or platforms become available. As with any business, so often it is not what is on paper that ultimately counts, but rather the people behind it that will make an author's experience with e-publishing a success or not.
A checklist of further issues authors should be aware of when viewing a contract:
- royalty structure (e-books vary from 25-50%, some as high as 70%)
- secondary and "reprint" rights
- non-competition with subsequent works
- right of first refusal on a subsequent works
- copyright (who holds it, who registers it)
- copyright of marketing materials/artwork produced by the publisher or author
- any fees or charges to author for services
- author's copies bought at a discount
- any restrictions on author selling copies
- termination clauses
- dispute resolution (where and how disputes are handled)