The major publishers have apparently worked themselves into a very strong commercial position at the moment with the transition to ebooks. I say “apparently” because the data that gives the most recent rise to that understanding — a presentation by HarperCollins of the current economics — is somewhat incomplete.
What Michael Cader reported in Publishers Lunch on June 4 — about which agent Brian Defiore commented on the Aardvark blog the same day — is that HarperCollins CEO Brian Murray had laid out the standard revenue and cost structure for hardcovers versus ebooks for shareholders. What it showed very starkly is that:
1. (Even though) revenues (the top line) for ebooks are lower on a unit basis than they are for hardcovers;
2. (And) royalties for ebooks are also lower on a unit basis than they are for hardcovers;
3. (Still) unit margins for publishers net of manufacturing, distribution, returns, and royalty costs are considerably higher for ebooks than for hardcovers.
So the authors working on the contractual rates make less per unit on the ebooks than they do on hardcovers and the publishers make more. The joker in that last sentence is “working on the contractual rates”.
The biggest authors don’t, and that’s how this situation has been allowed to happen.
The savviest agents for the biggest authors don’t negotiate contracts in the same way the rest of the world does. They figure out in concert with the publisher how many copies they think the book should sell (big authors with long track records are somewhat more predictable than the rest of the universe, which is one more reason their books are so desirable to the publishers) and get an advance that is equal to a startlingly high percentage of the revenue that sales level would produce.
The advance is not expected to earn out (and, believe me, with advances calculated this way, they almost never do). That means the royalty rates are irrelevant. So they can have their star authors sign the boilerplate contract, permitting the publisher to say — almost truthfully — that they don’t pay more than 15% of cover price royalty on print or more than 25% of net royalty on ebooks (among other things).
So Murray’s chart is accurate, except that it doesn’t cover the commercial reality — even though it reflects the actual contracts — for all the biggest books.
But that doesn’t change the fact that, the chart being out in the open, there’s an adverse reaction from beyond the agent community to what looks very much like big publishers improving their financial position at the expense of authors. What other reaction could there possibly be? The Authors Guild is upset and blogger-reporter Porter Anderson catches some additional commentary from Defiore.
At the same time, publishers are doing battle on the other side of their business, with retailers looking to increase their margins as well. This is not just about Amazon. They dominate online sales and are indispensable for that reason. But Barnes & Noble is nearly as dominant in terrestrial retail and have apparently been engaged in a dispute with Simon & Schuster for months which has reduced the presence of S&S’s books in their stores. The just-announced financial results for B&N make it very clear that they’d be motivated to be extremely covetous of any additional margin they can squeeze out of their trading partners.
When ebooks started to become commercially important, which we date to the launch of the Amazon Kindle in the fourth quarter of 2007, publishers faced the challenge of reducing overheads required for print publishing as the demand for print declined. Quite aside from what was (and is) the unpredictability of the rate of the change, this is not an easy challenge. The printing you’re ordering may be smaller, but you still need to set type, design a book, and order a printing. The number of copies you’re shipping and processing as returns might be smaller, but most big publishers owned their own warehouses so it wasn’t a simple matter to reduce the cost of that component either.
In fact, it would appear that returns may have declined more than print sales have, and even more drastically as a percentage of overall sales since ebooks don’t get returned at all. All of this has been good for publisher profitability. In fact, seeing the data we see now, one might wonder whether the publishers were being self-destructive when they went through great gyrations (including everything that landed them in the lawsuit Apple just finished for them all alone and which was expensive for them to settle) to preserve print sales at the expense of ebooks. They tried windowing — withholding the ebook from the market for a while — and then, famously since the DoJ involvement, maintaining somewhat higher prices on ebooks at retail.
But, of course, they weren’t being self-destructive. As I’ve written repeatedly, putting books on shelves is the publisher’s primary value proposition; as the need for that declines in importance, so do they. The bigger margins of the current environment will be extremely difficult to maintain. Agents for the big authors will be looking for an even higher percentage of the projected revenue as it shifts to digital. Since advances from publishers for other-than-the-biggest titles are also declining, those next-tier authors will find self-publishing or publishing with smaller houses that pay lower advances but higher ebook royalties an increasingly tempting alternative. Most of all, the biggest retailers will keep pushing for more margin. And most publishers won’t have the stomach for the lengthy fight S&S has undertaken (particularly since there is no evidence, yet, that S&S will prevail in the argument).
The big publishers who are reinvesting their current margins to develop the value proposition that will be important in the future — and that’s “digital marketing at scale” — might still be able to prosper as the transition progresses. But their trading partners on both sides — authors and retailers — will be relentless at chipping away at any “excess” margin they perceive. Michael Cader has pointed out that Amazon, making a margin of less than 1% of sales, has little reason to be sympathetic to publishers complaining about how hard it is to achieve double-digit margins. Barnes & Noble will need more margin from publishers every year to keep stores open in the face of declining sales.
Authors will be tempted to try something other than the old-style deal in direct proportion to two factors: how much the sales move online and how effective they can be at getting the word out on their books on their own digital backs. The first factor is out of the publishers’ control (and difficult to predict); the second means that the most desirable authors below the very top tier will become the hardest to retain.
I offered the advice some time ago that publishers should raise their author royalties as insulation against being hit up for margin by the retailers. At the time, one major publisher CEO said to me that there was merit in the advice I was giving, but it was “pretty hard to make changes like that with the DoJ in your shorts”. So perhaps we’ll see some overt moves to raise that 25% ebook royalty rate sometime soon since the DoJ problem seems to be in the past.
I’ve felt for a long time that what authors (agents) should work toward is a fixed amount-per-copy-sold as an ebook royalty and just get out of the percentages business on ebooks, which, as we know, can have their prices change on a frequent basis. I know that would be resisted by the publishers, but it makes a lot of sense.
But the current state of affairs says pretty emphatically what I’ve felt all along: the incumbent management of the big publishers is damn smart and has managed a very tricky transition extremely effectively. Where they’ve brought things as of today is an impressive feat, even if it will be almost impossible to sustain.