The Thorny Issue of Ebook Royalties

This post, from Sharon Blackie, originally appeared on the Two Ravens Press blog on 1/8/10 and is reprinted here in its entirety with her permission.

In a recent blog, the Society of Authors has been railing against publishers again, and calling for higher e-book royalty rates than the 15-25% that currently prevails in the market:

 …it is unconscionable that publishers should be attempting to strong­arm authors into accepting fixed royalty rates on e-books for the entire duration of copyright—and setting them, what is more, at a miserly 15% to 25% of their receipts. That may still be fair enough back in the Cretaceous world of dead tree publishing, but it is hard to see what it is about the selling of an e-book that entitles the publisher to cream off such an exorbitant share of the revenue.

I should say that, as a published author, I am a member of the Society of Authors, and I think they do many fine things. However, this whole e-book royalty question is NOT as simple an issue as it appears, and I find myself wishing that they would do a little more research before they simply assume that all publishers are out to fleece all authors for every last penny that they can. I’ve read a number of statements from the SOA recently (including in the recent issue of their magazine, The Author) on this issue and they are often filled with misconceptions about the practicalities of running a publishing business when it comes to independent publishers, who publish rather a lot of their members.

For example, one piece (irritatingly, I can’t locate it any longer) stated outright that there were no big distribution/wholesaler costs for e-books as there are for print books, because there is no need for warehousing/storage. WRONG! – Absolutely, utterly, 100% wrong. The distribution and warehousing charges for e-books are absolutely as high as they are for print books. For example, the biggest book warehouser in the country, Gardners, who distribute our e-books, charge exactly the same as they do for print books – an average whopping 50% of retail price. Why? Because they argue that there are still large costs associated with the production and maintenance of e-books: they’re just different ones. They relate to building, managing and keeping secure e-warehouses, among other things.

At Two Ravens Press we price our e-books as low as we possibly can, but the ultimate price of an e-book is driven by a desire to ensure that the author will get as much royalty from the sale of an e-book as from the sale of a print book – to the extent that that is feasible in the marketplace. With 25% royalties, we can usually achieve this. In fact, for e-book sales through our website, we can usually do better. According to the SOA, we must therefore be making vast amounts of money! Well, the truth is that on the average e-book, after we’ve taken off file conversion costs and everything else, we don’t make any more than we do on the sale of an average print book. And we still have to produce, market, cover our overheads etc etc – just as we do with print books. It is true that if your anticipated e-book sales for a given title are in the thousands and thousands for a bestselling title, you might be making a very large amount of money indeed for a relatively small amount of work. But in order to make back the conversion costs alone of an average TRP e-book, we’d have to sell over 100 copies. That’s without taking into account time, overheads and the vague desire that one of these days we might make a profit. Right now, I think our bestselling e-book has shifted around 6 copies.

The moral of the tale? Well, there are many, but I’m not going to go into them all here. At a minimum, please don’t tar all publishers with the same brush. Independent publishers with low volumes simply cannot operate, let alone make a living, on the kinds of royalties and terms that the SOA is beginning to insist on for all its members, regardless of who the publisher is. At TRP our publishing contracts are among some of the most generous around – certainly compared with other small indie publishers. But they’re right at the limit of what we can do and still operate. And whereas our authors always make money from their books, we often don’t.

Sharon

 

In 2006 Sharon Blackie, a former neuroscientist and practicing psychologist, decided to throw in all forms of gainful employment and set up a small independent publishing house at her 5-acre croft on the shores on a sea-loch in the north-west Highlands of Scotland. Her husband, David Knowles, a former Royal Air Force fast-jet pilot, became infected with the same insanity and gave up flying to join her. Both are successful writers and are firmly committed to their writer/publisher model; Sharon is a novelist and David is a poet.

Two Ravens Press specialises in contemporary literature – fiction, nonfiction and poetry – with a penchant for books that take risks with form and language. Described as ‘a quiet publishing revolution’, Two Ravens Press has also developed a reputation for being unafraid to tell it like it is on their blog at http://tworavenspress.wordpress.com.

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