The other comparison: ebook royalties versus ebook self-publishing
My last post tried to lay out a comparison of royalties paid by big publishers to agented authors on ebooks against what they pay on print books. What it showed is that the authors suffer a bit on ebook sales that substitute for hardcover print sales, but that they do pretty well selling an ebook instead of a paperback. And the numbers also showed that a publisher selling ebooks under a wholesale arrangement pays the author a higher royalty than an agency publisher when the print is in its hardcover life, but that the agency publisher is actually paying more royalties if the printed edition is a mass-market paperback.
But this comparison has its limits. It helps an author or agent compare their economic prospects with an agency publisher as opposed to a wholesale one. But it doesn’t help an author understand the next comparison she’ll want to make, between doing her book with a publisher and doing it herself without a publisher at all
Fortunately for authors and agents, the benchmark for self-publishing revenue is clearly established by the ebook platform Smashwords, which I first wrote about at the end of a post 16 months ago. There are certainly alternatives to Smashwords: web-based solutions like Scribd, full-service offerings like our clients at Bookmasters, and things in between like Author Solutions. But Smashwords is the most automated, least expensive, and, at this point, most heavily used self-publishing solution for ebooks.
Smashwords pays authors 85% of the sales price for ebooks sold on its own site, and about 85% of the receipts for sales made through iBooks (Apple), Sony, B&N, Kobo, and the Diesel eBook Store. In other words, an author would get more than three times the “old” standard 25% ebook royalty offered by the big publishers and double the “new” possible 40% royalty implied as the new ceiling by the Random-Wylie agreement announced last week.
It is worth noting that Mark Coker of Smashwords says that all their deals will be agency going forward because control of the retail price is very important to their authors and publishers. The net to the author or publisher through their existing deals is 42.5% for sales made through Sony or B&N, 46.75% for sales made through Kobo, and 60% on their agency deals with Apple and the Diesel eBook Store.
And although Smashwords does not (yet) have an agreement to distribute through Kindle (though they’re working on it), the authors and publishers that use Smashwords would be free to make a separate deal with Kindle, giving them a possible 70% of their retail price if they can keep the potential discounters in line (that would be B&N, Kobo, and Sony.)
One thing very much in Smashwords’ favor is that the barriers to use them are very low. All you need is a doc file and a bright person to pay attention to quality control as you work through your conversion. They make metadata management simple.
What might give big authors pause about using Smashwords is that they distribute DRM-free (although the retailers listed above will be adding their own unless the publisher tells them not to) and that they depend on trust. Each retailer selling Smashwords titles has the content file and the metadata file in their possession and the sales reporting cannot effectively be audited.
But whether or not Smashwords is everybody’s solution, they certainly are establishing that pure automated ebook conversion and distribution services are worth 15% of what is collected from the consumer or from the intermediary selling to the consumer.
Smashwords is already pretty big and growing fast. They have 18,000 titles on offer from 8,000 different authors and publishers at the moment and Coker says they’ve added 2,500 titles in the past 30 days!
And I can personally attest to the fact that Smashwords has some books people will want. I found a title on iBooks called “A Year in Mudville” about the Mets first season — baseball history being a subject I know well and read broadly — which is terrific. It is well-researched, well-written, and well-edited. I found some presentation glitches (type fonts changing for no apparent reason) and pointed them out to Coker. He showed them to the author who then corrected the file. (The glitches didn’t interfere with reading the book at all.) And that book was priced at $8.99 on iBooks, which means the author was getting $5.40 from the sale! Look at that against the chart in my prior post! On a $9 list-price ebook, the author would be getting $1.125 from a wholesale publisher and $1.575 from an agency publisher at 25% royalty; $1.80 and $2.52 at 40%. (And, assuming they did an Amazon deal separately and could meet the restrictions required for the 70% royalty, that author would be getting $6.30 for each sale on Kindle!)
At per-unit revenues from ebook sales anywhere from 2.5-to-6 times what they could get from a publisher, and ebook sales rising inexorably as a percentage of total sales, authors and their agents are ultimately going to be doing their math against this option for each new book they have to offer. Some may be doing it already.
There are a few things publishers can tell authors to try to keep them from jumping.
1. “Don’t forget: we give you an advance!” That is the first, and for many authors the most powerful, argument. Agents like advances too, so they’re likely to be sympathetic to the publishers’ point here. But, of course, with that advance comes the publisher’s claim to more than half of what would otherwise be the author’s ebook profits.
2. “Don’t forget: print books are still 90% of your market!” This is really the reason established authors will be reluctant to jump to Smashwords. And as long as print is 90%, or even 80% (and it is falling to that level on many immersive reading books now), getting a multiple on the ebook sales still leaves a shortfall of revenue to the author unless they figure out how to also have the book available in print. The big publishers won’t be doing print-only deals for quite a while, but smaller publishers will certainly be available to work with brand-name authors on that basis. And when the print share falls to 50% of the total sales, which many of us believe it will over the next few years, this argument won’t be effective anymore. (There are many ways for the author to self-publish print too, but only the print-on-demand solutions don’t require big investment or risk, and you aren’t going to get what a publisher would deliver with POD alone.)
3. “You’ll have to do your own publicity and marketing.” This is true, but it is also true that publishers have wanted authors to do a lot of their own publicity and marketing already. From here, it would seem that the author’s marketing efforts will be critical either way. If the author is already big and branded (likely due at least in part to the prior efforts of a publisher, but that’s not necessarily relevant here), it’s less of a barrier than if they’re not. It might be no barrier at all. This is an uncomfortable point for publishers because the authors who need the least help are the ones they want to publish the most.
4. “If we publish you, you’re legitimatized.” I think this point carries almost no weight with any author who has had a bestseller already or has already had more than a couple of books published by established houses. I think it will carry less and less weight with everybody else. I just found my first great book by an unknown author on Smashwords. Sooner or later, you will too.
5. “We’ve built email lists and other direct contact with the consumers you want to sell to, plus we have relationships with the book retailers to get you more attractive placement and promotion through them than you can get without us.” Now, that would be attractive. Can any big publisher justify that claim?
6. “We will pay you 70% of receipts on ebooks to keep you in our stable. It isn’t the 85% you get from Smashwords, but with our advance, our print book sales, and taking all the admin and management off your hands, it’s a better deal for you.” That will probably work, but no publisher wants to let it get to that point.
Publishers better work on number five.