Pass the Gestalt, Please

This post, by Evan Schnittman, originally appeared on his Black Plastic Glasses blog on 7/15/10.

In the past two weeks I have heard forcefully stated pronouncements by agent Andrew Wylie and chair of the Society of Authors, Tom Holland, regarding ebook royalty rates.  A 50/50 share between author and publisher is the only possible outcome they can accept, citing the tired and somewhat old argument we have heard before:

The publisher has little or no incremental out of pocket cost to create ebooks, therefore the income should be split in the same manner as subsidiary rights, which is generally 50/50.

 The average person would be hard pressed to disagree—certainly in this day and age the digital file created to make a print book cannot cost much to convert to an ebook. Even the DRM, hosting, and file management costs must be de minimis when compared to the cost of paper, printing, binding, warehouse, and shipping. And ebooks have no returns!

But there is a huge flaw in this view, as it is built on the self-serving and reductive assumption that ebooks can and should be viewed as separate from the book’s overall economy. By attacking ebook royalties in this manner, a trap is set by those seeking to maximize short-term profits at the expense of all else. The object of this ploy is to dissect the intellectual property into as many different pieces as possible and negotiate them on the open market in order to maximize the “deal.”

The problem with that approach is that successful and coherent publishing is not the sum of individual publishing rights, but rather the gestalt work presented coherently to a global audience. Viewing the ebook out of the context of the rest of the work gets us nowhere. We must understand how ebooks fit into the publishing ecosphere and only then can we determine what the right royalty should be.

To begin, let’s establish what an ebook isn’t—a subsidiary right.

Read the rest of the post on Evan Schnittman’s Black Plastic Glasses.