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The Politics of Publishing

By Sal Glynn

Book publishing is capricious at best, given to fits of enthusiasm and despair, and usually on the same day. The advent of the ebook has not eased the situation, so the industry can decide on one mood swing or the other. Literary agent Rita Rosenkranz has seen more than a few changes and notes that, "Publishers as much as possible are looking to have their content (front list and backlist) available as ebooks. Many of them are working through their backlist and are catching up as best they can....I have to hope that with fewer titles being published by the major houses, the quality overall is raised."

This year at the annual BookExpo America show in New York, the talk was of ebooks. The big six publishers-Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster-want digital technology to be the savior of the industry. Without the usual costs of paper, printing, and binding, ebooks can deliver the higher profit that has always eluded publishers. Or can they?

Cypress House publisher Cynthia Frank says, "At this point, the variations in format (Kindle, iPad, Eucalyptus apps, MobiPocket) basically means many extra steps in the editorial and production. As the makers of books, it's our responsibility to make life as easy as possible for the reader. But the multiple formats make production issues more complex than when we were just doing print books."

Along with these problems comes compensation to the author. Writing a book takes much longer than its production, and authors are concerned about their royalties. The standard trade book royalty rate is 15 percent of the cover price, and 25 percent of net receipts for ebooks. (This means authors earn $3.74 from the sales of a $24.95 hardcover book, versus $1.75 from the sales of a $9.99 ebook.) Possibilities for a mid-list author of earning an income above the poverty level become slim. "This is why I've turned away completely from book ideas and authorly ambitions," says Rebecca Woolf, author of Rockabye: From Wild to Child.

Literary agent Andrew Wylie has begun a small revolution in digital publishing with his Odyssey Editions, a boutique ebook publishing company whose first catalog offers classic novels by Martin Amis, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, Salman Rushdie, and others, all priced at $9.99. His agreement with Amazon gives the retailer a two-year exclusive, and promises that the royalty rate will be much higher. Authors (or their estates, since many of Odyssey's authors are dead) can expect to earn $5.94 to $6.29 for each Odyssey edition of their work, compared to the current low of $1.75 from the major publishers.

Having an agent act as a publisher has raised serious concerns. Random House holds the print rights for many of the Odyssey books. It reacted to Wylie's new company with a freeze on doing any business with the agent until the matter of who owns what rights can be resolved. On the other hand, Simon & Schuster's revenues and profits are up, according to Chief Executive Carolyn Reidy. She told Publisher's Marketplace that ebooks accounted for approximately 8% of adult sales, and that that percentage would increase once royalty rates were worked out.

Others in the industry worry about what the Amazon-exclusive agreement means to retailers; however, readers avoid these arguments as they take to the stores in greater and greater numbers. The Association of American Publishers stated in a press release that book sales have increased by 9.8 percent over the previous year, with adult hardcover rising 43.2 percent. Maybe this is a sign that the rush to ebooks is premature. In a guest column for Book Business, Randy Shur of Square One Publishers states that only three percent of total book market revenue comes from the ebook format. This number seems small until it is taken from the annual book revenue of $80 billion, and ebooks are shown to earn $200 million.

In the end, readers remain faithful to the printed word. The book will endure regardless and in spite of the digital world. Sometimes the best is the most simple. There is plenty of room for both. Roy Blount, Jr. gaveScott Turow this advice after his election as president of the Authors Guild: "...make sure Amazon doesn't take over the book industry, find out why ebook royalty rates are so shamefully low, and keep the digital pirates at bay. The rest should take care of itself."

Sal Glynn is the author of The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish



Rita Rosenkranz, interview with the author

Cynthia Frank, interview with the author

Rebecca Woolf, interview with the author

Authors Guild, www.authorsguild.org

Association of American Publishers (AAP), www.publishers.org

Book Business, www.bookbusinessmag.com

The Bookseller, www.thebookseller.com


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2 Comment count
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I'll walk your dog

Thanks, Sal, for a thoughtful report on this crazy business. Everytime I read news on the publishing business, I think I'll come away knowing exactly what to do with two manuscripts -- no such luck. I'm stuck. Which direction to take is still a puzzle, as it seems to be for those of you in the know as well. I'll get a copy and Walk Down the Street with your Dog.


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Helpful Hints from the Kennel

A good walk on a late summer day will answer more questions than a room full of editors. Let me know if you have need more information over after reading THE DOG. I do.