I remain bemused by authors who insist, when refusing to grant ebook rights, that their works are meant to be experienced in a certain (bound and printed) format. It’s a bit quaint, when you think about it, that they would impose their own vision of art on the beholder — it’s a bit like Michelangelo insisting that we only view the ceiling of Sistine Chapel while supine, X feet away from the work.
It’s insanity to suggest someone should carve these rights in stone now.
It is not how the artist creates the work that defines the experience: it is how the viewer/reader/listener/casual observer interacts with it that matters. Every time you reread a book, aren’t you having a different experience? Is every word, every phrase, every insight exactly the same the second, third, eighth time? Why authors want to define our experience is beyond me — authors should want that experience to be as rich and varied as possible. Once the book is published, it is no longer the author’s to shape.
Terry Goodkind has recently elected to have his works published in electronic format. While one source says he’s held back those rights, just as JK Rowling did, because of his insistence of maintaining the integrity of form and format, the announcement in Publisher’s Weekly puts a more financial spin on the deal:
When asked why Goodkind opted to be published in e-book by an independent, in Rosetta, Goodkind’s agent, Russell Galen, said Rosetta “offered us much better terms.” [Arthur] Klebanoff [CEO of RosettaBooks], who negotiated the Goodkind deal with Galen, added that he thinks the size of a publisher is also less important in e-book publishing. “Obviously Random House has a compelling argument when it comes to what it can do [in publishing] a phsycial book,” he told PW. “But in e-book [publishing] the people selling the books are Kindle, Sony Reader and various other e-tailers. So, whether the title is fed by Rosetta or Random House makes no difference.”
The second part of that paragraph is fascinating and very much the topic of today’s thoughts. Why should an author give over his or her epublishing rights to a traditional print house? What advantage comes from this sort of arrangement? I am not asking a rhetorical question. In a new distribution landscape, what advantage does a traditional, print-based publisher offer?
First, let us begin with a truth: because Goodkind held back his rights for so long, he created an underground market for his works. Keeping these rights close doesn’t keep ebooks from being created and distributed. Witness the Google results for Terry Goodkind ebook. One surefire way to combat the pirates is to make legal editions easily available at a reasonable price through legitimate retailers…and then do everything in your power to make sure those search results appear first, before the pirates. People are lazy, don’t make pirating a more attractive option than buying legal.
That ought to be the first law of digital media: Make legal products easier and more cost effective than pirated products.
As some publishers tell me, a major challenge to their digital migration is getting authors and agents on board with this new distribution channel (and that’s all it is, a new distribution channel). I can see why, but look at the example above for the obvious drawback in holding back these rights. The reason Goodkind’s agent stated for choosing Rosetta Stone over Random House: it’s the money, stupid. And that’s something publishers, traditional publishers, have to face.
The competition is not located in a shiny Manhattan office building. Publishers are no longer competing just with each other, announcing pre-empts and huge advances. As the market moves online, the money has to change. Goodkind and authors like him have the power to do it — if and when Rowling enters into the ebook market, if her agent is half as good as reputed, you don’t think she’s going to settle for relatively small royalties, do you?
As publishers like Random House try to redefine concepts such as “out-of-print”, savvy authors and agents will be more diligent about defining tight deadlines for contracts (in fact, I’m a bit surprised this isn’t happening more frequently). Firm deadlines allow authors to renegotiate terms, especially as the digital market grows and evolves. While publishers love the idea of locking someone into 2008 rules, it’s a safe bet to say that this landscape will be vastly different in ten years.
It’s insanity to suggest someone should carve these rights in stone now, when the future’s so bright, blah, blah, blah.
Of course, digital rights and how they’re compensated are just a small part of the overall challenge. That’s another topic for another today. Yeah, just call me your little ray of sunshine.