Ebook deals 'not remotely fair' on authors
Digital publishing deals locking writers in for the duration of copyright risk damaging industry, says Society of Authors chair
The chair of the Society of Authors, Tom Holland, has hit out at publishers' attempt to seize control over electronic rights, calling ebook deals that lock authors in for the duration of copyright "not remotely fair".
Speaking at the Romantic Novelists' Association's annual conference last week, Holland urged authors to push for ebook royalties that are "considerably higher" than the standard of around 25%. Although Holland said the market for ebooks is only about 1% of the total UK market, it is "growing fast" and the Society of Authors believes that, given publishers will eventually have much lower warehousing and distribution costs for ebooks, royalties should be divided 50/50.
"Most publishers are insisting they should control ebook rights and this will be written into standard contracts. I think it's an entirely reasonable position to take, so long as the royalties and returns on ebooks are fair and proper and reasonable. If they are not, I suspect we may well find very big-name authors, such as JK Rowling or Dan Brown, will go their own way," said Holland. "It's a danger publishers need to recognise and a danger for writers as well. If JK Rowling controls her own ebook rights [then] there's less money for her publisher to invest in new authors. We could face a situation of very big-name authors pulling the ladder up after them [and] we have a stake in seeing a healthy publishing industry."
Although publishers "are inclined to dismiss the argument that costs are reduced on ebooks", Holland said: "Once a system has been set up, publishers won't be paying for warehousing, distribution and printing, and we have to ask ourselves what are they spending the money on?
"We accept that publishers have been investing heavily in digital infrastructure and at the moment they are losing money on ebooks because sales are so low. I can sort of understand their reservations over higher royalties at the moment, but nevertheless a contract that lasts for the duration of copyright is a hugely long time. Publishers in negotiations with Amazon, or whoever, say they want two-year contracts because there's such flux, but at the same time are asking authors for the duration of copyright. It has to be wrong – it's not remotely fair," he said.
"Twenty-five per cent might be reasonable as the infrastructure's set up but only for two years. The risk if we don't do that is that the rate will essentially be set in concrete, it will freeze and be taken as the norm, not just for two to three years but for two to three decades. If we don't fight it now, we will lose our chance to present and make our case, and that will be it."
Katie Fforde, bestselling novelist and chair of the Romantic Novelists' Association, agreed that a 25% ebook royalty "would be perfectly fair if it was for two years, or a limited period, and then could be renegotiated". "We don't want to go on and on paying for the set-up costs," she said. "I think a 50/50 split is greedy, but if you don't ask you don't get, and I imagine that might raise the negotiations."
The Samuel Johnson prize-winning historian Antony Beevor believes the Society of Authors is "absolutely right". "To begin with, publishers were trying to set a royalty of a lot less than 25%, they were trying to get around 12.5-15%. Fortunately the agents have taken a pretty strong line and so has the Society of Authors, and I fully support it," he said. "Publishers are suffering badly themselves [at the moment] but it's a bit like Tesco and the farmers – the author as the producer will be squeezed the most."