Letter to Writers
Let me introduce myself. I’m a published novelist, former editor, former member of The Writers’ Union of Canada, writing mentor and a psychotherapist. I served as chair of the Contracts Committee of The Writers’ Union until I became dismayed by what I perceived as zombie foot-dragging by TWUC’s administration on promoting writers’ e-rights. Fear of offending publishers is no longer a valid excuse for sidestepping the tough questions. Writers now have choices. Before ebooks came along, they didn’t.
On January 19th, 2009, at our Contracts Committee meeting, ebook royalties came under discussion. A startling opportunity for writers became clear to me and others present. I launched this blog in order to help spread the word to as many writers as I can.
Technology is utterly reconfiguring the world of publishing. We have an amazing opportunity now, as writers, to take advantage of the flux that technology has plunged publishing into, and to rewrite the terms from scratch. We could be fairly paid, at last, for the use of our intellectual property. But we can only do this if we catch up to what publishers already know about the true costs and opportunities of electronic (digital) publishing.
I feel a pressing need for us writers to quickly get ourselves up to speed on digital-age technology if we’re to fight for fair compensation and control over our intellectual property. We are at great risk of being exploited by others who will fix terms preferential to themselves.
Standard royalty rates for e-publishing are in flux. Writers must press now for a split with publishers that more fairly reflects each party’s contribution to creating an ebook. This split ought to be something like 60/40— or better, favouring writers .
Publishers on the other hand are refusing to budge at more than 15% – 25% max, claiming that costs comparable to those of hard-copy books are now being incurred in website storage and maintenance. They are charging for a virtual ghost warehouse and shipper. Publishers are going for a smash and grab, despite a huge reduction in overhead costs in producing and distributing ebooks.
We’ve seen a steady erosion of publishers’ services towards creators with no diminution of royalties charged. Publishers no longer edit or proofread as they once did, buy advertising, employ a sales force, circuit-sell or tour authors as they once did.
Books, on the other hand, have continued to climb in price until they’ve reached the upper edge of affordability for most readers. Traditional publishing is racing to hybridize with ebook-publishing. Conversion to electronic and print-on-demand publishing will soon be widespread.
We writers need to catch on to how epublishing works; its many possibilities, the tools for converting texts to epub format and its true costs, so that we can better evaluate the offers publishers are now making to us.
My observation right now is that some (most) Canadian publishers are pressing writers to sign away their ebook rights, misrepresenting their own costs, taking advantage of our ignorance of the technology. Writers are being offered the short end of the stick.
How to proceed:
I’ve taken it upon myself to research epublishing from the writer’s perspective. I’m happy to share whatever I learn with other writers wanting to protect their livelihoods in this fast-evolving field.
Pithy questions to explore:
- What percentage is fair?
- What are traditional publishers’ real costs of producing and marketing ebooks?
- What cuts are writers in other countries accepting?
- How can we make ebooks ourselves and market them?
Where am I looking for answers?
The internet is exploding with information. I’ve found some stellar sites already. More arrive every day
A wonderfully lucid text to read:
Book Business: Publishing, Past, Present and Future by Jason Epstein. This man, a veteran of literary publishing in the U.S., launched the quality paperback revolution, co-founded the New York Review of Books and has accurately predicted what’s taking place now in electronic publishing. If nothing else, read his preface and his afterword.
Good night, and good luck.