Apologies in advance for a much-longer-than-usual post.
It is not like the publishers haven’t seen the ebook royalty fight coming. On a panel he and I were on together in March of 2009, John Sargent, the Chairman and CEO of Macmillan, identified ebook margins as the critical issue for publishers going forward. Even though ebook sales at that point were financially insignificant and the growth surge that we’ve seen in the past 15 months wasn’t yet evident, Sargent expressed the belief that ebooks would be the future and that publishers had to be diligent to preserve their margins in the digital environment.
There are three moving parts to the publishers’ margin equation for ebooks.
The one that I think Sargent was thinking most of at that time is ebook pricing. If “misguided” publishers or market forces drive down prices a great deal, that could threaten publishers as sales migrate to digital.
The second one, which was then and remains today a focus of publishers, is the potential consolidation of sales channels so that power moves from a multitude of publishers to a small number of, or perhaps a single dominant, point of contact with the customer. Until the Nook came along from B&N last winter and the iPad from Apple in the spring, Amazon and Kindle looked dangerously close to being able to dictate both pricing and margin in the ebook supply chain.
And third, of course, is the amount of the consumer spend that is taken by the authors: the royalty.
The ebook pricing and channel consolidation issues have been front and center for the past year, ever since Dominique Raccah of Sourcebooks put “windowing”, which had been tried before for ebooks, in the spotlight as her solution to the perceived damage deeply discounted ebooks could do to print book sales, particularly of the hardcover edition. After she announced that she was holding back the ebook for Bran Hambric, similar announcements came from other publishing houses. At that time, only a year ago, Amazon was the dominant ebook vendor with Kindle sales amounting to 80% or more of the ebook sales for narrative trade books.
But the introduction of Barnes & Noble’s Nook device began to eat into Amazon’s hegemony last winter as 700 B&N stores started pushing a Kindle-type experience on their millions of customers. Then, in April, Apple introduced the iPad and changed the game two ways.
First of all, their tablet computing device, which can serve as a larger-than-a-cellphone screen for an ebook reader, started adding tens of thousands of new device-equipped potential book customers every day!
But along with the device competition, the iPad and its iBooks platform added a new business model called Agency. And, under Agency, the pricing of ebooks at retail theoretically becomes standardized across the web, not subject to discounting by individual retailers. This visibly upset Amazon, which appeared to pick a fight with Macmillan over the terms. It looked to those of us with no inside knowledge of their conversations to be an attempt to bully publishers to give up the Agency idea. In retrospect, this was perhaps a bad fight to have picked. Amazon’s threat was to stop selling the print editions of titles from those publishers who sold ebooks on Agency terms. Since five of the top six publishers were moving in that direction, and none of them blinked, Amazon had to, in their own words, “capitulate.” (On the other hand, we are not aware of any other publisher, beyond the Big Five, to whom they also capitulated, so the final score on this fight isn’t in yet.)
So it would seem that the big publishers have solidified two of the major components of their ebook margin. With their help, consolidation in the ebook channel has been reversed and they’ve taken critical steps to control prices to the consumer, while ebook sales have continued to rise at an accelerating pace.
But there remains this tricky question of royalties.
Agency pricing compounded the 25% problem from the authors’ and agents’ point of view because the base price for Agency books is 25% to 40% lower than it is for the old model, wholesale, so the authors’ share is commensurately reduced. Most agents liked the principle of getting uniform pricing, likely to create a healthier ebook marketplace, but were understandably miffed that their per-copy take could be reduced without any agreement required on their part. The publishers would no doubt point out that their take per ebook unit was going down as well. And Random House, still selling at wholesale, is no doubt making the point that their 25% amounts to substantially more per unit than the other guys’ 25%.
There had already been signs for a while that a lot of legacy backlist wasn’t being enticed by the royalty offers of its current publisher. Jane Friedman, formerly the CEO of HarperCollins and an important player on the New York publishing scene for four decades with a lot of very solid relationships, started a new publishing company called Open Road. Among her propositions was to secure ebook rights to some very well established backlist titles by offering a royalty of 50% of receipts while many of the big publishers were apparently holding the line at 25%. The early headline “get” for Open Road were novels by William Styron.
Then in December, S&S bestselling author Stephen Covey announced that he was putting some of his backlist into ebooks for a deal calling for more than 50% of receipts through Rosetta Books, which had litigated inconclusively with Random House about these matters a few years ago. Through Rosetta, Covey’s books were going to be exclusively offered for a time through Kindle. At the time that announcement was made, Nook hadn’t taken hold and iPad hadn’t come out and Kindle was the dominant platform in the market. A time-limited exclusive with them at that moment didn’t seem crazy.
Last week, the plot really thickened.
In retrospect, one could say that there were two preliminaries to the big news about the intentions of the agent Andrew Wylie.
On Tuesday Teleread carried the story that Knopf was pushing ahead to digitize more backlist. There appears never to have been a formal announcement of this, and it seemed a bit curious on a couple of counts. One is that Random House, of which Knopf is a part, has already digitized backlist for years. What could they have missed in their prior efforts? The other is that it always seemed that Random House’s digital efforts were corporate, not imprint-specific. Why would there be news about Knopf on its own?
Then my good friend Evan Schnittman published a post on his Black Plastic Glasses blog called “Pass the Gestalt, Please.” Evan’s point was simple and forcefully made. Ebooks don’t exist in a vacuum; they can’t be evaluated with stand-alone economics. Publishers acquire intellectual property and they monetize it every way they can. They make more from some formats and channels than they do from other formats and channels. But what matters in the end is how much total money they produce, for themselves and for their authors.
I have a problem jumping from the math Schnittman lays out to the characterization that agents are being unreasonable when they ask for a higher percentage of ebook receipts than they get of hardcover receipts. Schnittman argues that margin is irrelevant because the parties aren’t negotiating a profit-sharing deal. I’d say the receipts comparison that he draws is irrelevant. Hardcover receipts are offset by printing costs, handling costs, and spending for excess inventory that receipts on ebooks are not.
By all public appearances, big publishers were being very stubborn about their 25% ebook royalty, even on very important backlist and more or less daring authors to do something about it.
On Wednesday morning, the plans of the Wylie office were dropped like a bomb, apparently by Amazon. (I am told by a source I trust that Amazon revealed the news and that Andrew Wylie himself was, and is, away on vacation. The Times, as you can see, didn’t report it that way.) It was announced that Wylie that had formed a new publishing company called Odyssey to handle some significant backlist and — in an apparent middle finger to the entire publishing community — were putting the books into Amazon for a 2-year exclusive. Left unrevealed were what Wylie was paying the authors, what splits Amazon offered Wylie’s authors, and whether any money changed hands between Amazon and the new Odyssey entity. The announcement of Odyssey followed a long period where Wylie had complained publicly about publishers’ reluctance to pay what he (and many other agents) thought were reasonable ebook royalties for legacy backlist.
Response was quick. John Sargent, tongue deeply in cheek, welcomed Wylie to the community of publishers and suggested he should perhaps be paying AAP dues. Random House announced they would not be buying any books from the Wylie agency until this issue was resolved. And many people observed that signing an exclusive deal with Amazon when they’re losing market share quickly and are likely to lose more soon was questionable, not to mention whether there was a conflict of interest for an agent publishing his own clients’ books.
Without knowing what incentives Wylie got for his authors from Amazon in return for the exclusive, it is hard to be sure that it is a mistake (although it seems likely, given the current growth pattern of the ebook suppy chain.) But the conflict of interest for an agent charged with looking for the best possible deal for an author and then self-publishing, in the face of potential litigation, is transparent. And even if Random House is the only house that openly boycotts the agency, there’s an impact on all Wylie clients in return for a theoretical advantage for the ones being he will publish through Odyssey. One must imagine there are more than a few current authors with that office who are scratching their heads about what this might mean for them.
From my perspective, there’s plenty of justification on all sides of this argument. Although I didn’t like his math, Evan Schnittman is entirely correct to say that a publisher making a deal for a copyright plans to exploit it through all channels. In words I’ve heard often from John Schline of Penguin, “you don’t do a P&L on a format; you do a P&L on a title.” They’re right that the author negotiating a deal with them accepts a basket of compensation schemes for different channels in return for an advance. Logical fallacies can creep in when you take one element of it in isolation and say it “isn’t fair” (although, in practice, that’s exactly how contracts are negotiated.)
But the controllers of old copyrights — the Styron estate and Stephen Covey, among others, and apparently several other estates and authors represented by Andrew Wylie — are also right to believe that the ebook rights weren’t contemplated in the contracts for the books in question and that a publisher starting today to publish those books electronically will have a tiny cost base and relatively astronomical margins.
Certainly not all publishers are being stubborn about the 25% number in all negotiations. And agents usually feel they can’t talk about concessions they get publishers to make. One made it very clear to me that s/he was getting concessions from publishers on ebook royalty terms in the form of escalators, but would never say so out loud for fear of angering the customers of s/he’d wangled those concessions from.
(On the other hand, things might be changing fast. In a story I saw just as I was finishing this post, the Financial Times wonders if the Wylie plans don’t signal the conclusion of publishing as we have known it. In that story, superagent Amanda (Binky) Urban is quoted saying her ICM office is getting significant royalty concessions from major publishers, including Random House. Perhaps the Wylie story has changed the dynamic so that now publishers want all the agents to know they’re ready to be reasonable. I’m not aware of an agent having been quoted to that effect before, and it would seem highly unlikely that Urban said what she said without having consulted any house she would name in advance. All of that would anticipate the suggestion I’m making below.)
All public statements are, by definition, posturing.
But the arguments publishers have made publicly to this point have elided the fact that their negotiating position is not the same for these books as they are for a new book. When a new proposal is put in front of them for purchase today, whether they are offering $10,000, $100,000 or $1 million for the rights, they’re in a position to say “if you want my check, it comes attached to these royalty terms.” But they didn’t stipulate those terms when they published books 40 or 30 or 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. At a minimum, they require agreement from the author on a royalty rate to publish the ebook today; they may need agreement from the author to publish the ebook at all.
Why would the publishers expect an author whose book has earned out long ago, who has no requirement to allow the publisher to publish the ebook and (at the very least) a case to make that they’re free to sell ebook rights elsewhere, to accept the same terms that are offered to authors not in that position?
Publishers may have trapped themselves by not articulating that distinction. Their public position seems to be that they can’t make a competitive deal on this backlist because it would create precedents for the new titles they’re negotiating for today. But it doesn’t have to. There’s a very simple, clear policy they could declare that would make this whole issue go away. Maybe there are one or two already acting this way, but it would be nice if even one publisher would just say this:
“Our policy for all new titles we sign up in the context of all our other standard terms is that we pay 25% royalty on ebooks. But for those books on our backlist which a) have earned out their advance and b) have ambiguity in their original contracts making it unclear what the royalty rate for an ebook should be, we will negotiate a higher royalty in recognition that a contractual element is being negotiated after the value of the copyright has been demonstrated in the marketplace and the risk profile has changed.”
Life is very complicated here. Every deal is different. There are costs and risks for authors and publishers trying to set up these separate ebook deals while a print backlist remains with a legacy publisher. The publisher might sue (although that opens up, for them, the danger that they’d lose, and the consequences of that could be dire.) At the very least, the author annoys the guys with the big checkbooks who are still the custodians of their print sales.
Although it is certainly possible that some authors or estates would want a publisher as talented as Jane Friedman remarketing their backlist, I still believe that if Open Road and others are offering 50%, publishers would find many authors receptive to avoiding the conflict if the publishers were offering 40%. But even if they had to pay 50% to some authors, the publishers would be doing themselves a favor by stating the position articulated above.
Each publisher has to do its own math about how many books of theirs would be affected and what openly paying 60-to-100 percent higher royalties on those books would cost them. Undoubtedly, it would also require them to make concessions to authors they’d roped in for the 25% royalty; certainly many of those have re-openers or most favored nation clauses of some kind in their contracts. That’s the downside. But there is a lot of upside. For one thing, Open Road and Rosetta and Wylie’s new imprint would be seriously weakened; except for Open Road, which has strong cachet with Jane Friedman at the helm, they might just disappear. For another, lots of great titles that could be selling robustly as ebooks if only they were available as ebooks would be producing revenue for the publishers (as well as the authors.) Significant legal costs and liabilities would evaporate. And they’d gain enormously in trust and goodwill with the agents, who are spending far too much time trying to figure out how to go around publishers for the best backlist they control, rather than how to work with them. The conversations I have had make me believe that most agents do not believe that most big publishers are willing to deal on the basis I’m outlining here, (although a lot of them will be calling the publishers tomorrow after they read Binky Urban’s quotes.)
Aside from the reduced per-copy royalties agents and authors are seeing from the Agency pricing, they are also afraid that robust ebook sales at the hardcover price are postponing the issuance of trade paperback editions, on which the 25% Agency royalty does exceed the normal 7% of retail paid on print. That makes them feel like they’re losing again.
It is a paradox that traditional contracts have legacy publishers — the ones who write the large advance checks — paying higher per-copy print royalties than many little publishers pay on hardcovers, even with the various high-discount clawbacks that have been built in over the years. The ebook-first publishers who do print will almost certainly pay lower print royalties than print-first publishers have, if they do hardcovers at all. Publishers will need a foundation of good will, but over time should be able to negotiate lower hardcover royalties in return for higher ebook royalties on new contracts. And that will make sense, because, ultimately, print sales are more expensive for publishers to deliver than ebook sales.
Even if the publishers pushing back manage to win this round with Wylie, and they well might, I don’t think the 25% royalty can hold for very long. As more and more of the business shifts to ebooks, companies without the legacy costs that big publishers have will find it easy to pay higher royalties than that and agents will keep doing the math about how many sales they can afford to lose and still end up ahead in dollars with a higher ebook royalty. As Amazon should have learned in their fight with Macmillan in January, it isn’t smart business to draw a line in the sand marking a position you ultimately can’t defend. I hope every big publisher in town will take that lesson on board, or, even better, that Urban’s remarks tell us that they already have.
In a dialogue with a couple of smart people in my “kitchen cabinet” between writing this piece and posting it, I was asked whether I thought the ebook should have a royalty “greater than the hardcover or less than the paperback.” My response was:
I don’t have an ideology about this. Applying logic alone, I would think a Harlequin or O’Reilly ebook author should get a lower percentage than a Big Six ebook author because the Harlequin and O’Reilly brands add to the online ebook sales power in ways the Big Six publisher brand does not. The same author and the same book wouldn’t sell as well if it were under another imprint. Fully applied, that approach would mean that every deal would be different, which is utterly impractical. I don’t like to advocate things that are impractical.
Publishers should try to make standard the lowest royalty that they can apply in the marketplace without making enemies of their trading partners. It just isn’t realistic to offer a brand name with a choice of where to go 25% in this day and age. It’s just bullheaded. My sense is that any house that offered a standard 25% to earnout and 35% thereafter would be fine for now, except with the biggest authors with whom they’ll have to negotiate escalators (or change the basis on which the not-intended-to-be-earned-out advance is calculated.) But all solutions here are temporary. The line won’t hold. When ebook sales get to 50% of the total (2014-15), even 50% is not going to cut it.