Saturday, July 23, 2011

Print Rights as Subsidiary Rights?

by Libby Sternberg

You own a business. It does reasonably well. Then the economy tanks. And what's worse, a new product appears that grabs market share from your primary source of income. In a matter of months you lose one-third of your sales. Time to cut back.

Welcome to the world of mass market paperback publishing.

According to the Association of American Publishers, net sales for mass market paperbacks slid by 30.1 percent in the first five months of this year compared to the same period last year. Here are the figures:

Mass Market Paperback
2010 YTD net sales: $264.8M
2011 YTD net sales: $185.1M

The full AAP story is here. (The headline is a wee bit confusing -- mass market paperback sales are not the same as adult paperback.)

Meanwhile, ebook sales continue to climb, with an increase of 160.1 percent over the same time period last year.

And also meanwhile, authors who had previously been published in print continue to dabble in self-publishing their material in e-book formats while new authors jump into the e-book market, forgoing the traditional publishing route entirely. add more to ponder...publishers continue to struggle with pricing in the e-book market, some of them moaning publicly about how they can't afford the lower price points e-book readers have come to expect -- usually below $5.00 with many books being offered at least initially for 99 cents.

Let me address this latter point first. The quotes that I've seen from publishers whining about low e-book pricing usually boil down to affordability -- for them, that is. They simply can't afford to offer e-books at too low a price because they'd lose money.

Here's a round-up of the rationale I've read from publishers on e-book pricing: It takes them X-number of steps to get a print book ready for digital release. Each of those steps costs them something. Therefore, they resent low pricing. Their worlds would be a lot happier if authors and e-publishers would get with their program and keep e-book prices higher.

But here's the problem -- e-book pricing is not about their needs. It's about the consumer's needs. Publishers should take a hard look at what e-books are competing with. They're not just competing with other forms of books. They're competing for a consumer's disposable "pleasure" income -- money he or she has decided to spend on something fun but not necessary -- and the choices consumers face in that market range enormously. Instead of spending, say, $11 on an e-book whose quality they're unsure of, they could a) buy a bottle of wine; b) rent a movie; c) buy some music; d) get an order of those really good egg rolls they like; e) buy some gourmet cupcakes., etc. (My choices are heavy on food. Hmm...must be hungry.)

The point is that the skeptical reading consumer (skeptical because, perhaps, of previous bad choices in the book market) sees that $11 or even $7 price tag and doesn't think "what other book can I get for this amount?" He or she is thinking "What other thing can I get for this amount that will give me as much, if not more, pleasure?"

That same consumer then sees an array of books priced below $5, many at 99 cents, and the choice of a book suddenly moves up the list of ways to spend their disposable income.

But this price battle leads to a larger point -- if more and more authors are taking control of their own publishing destiny by contracting with e-publishers (such as our own, Istoria Books) or handling e-publishing themselves, why don't traditional publishers consider a new paradigm, one that could save them all that money they spend on the "X number of steps" involved in digital release and actually make them some money on e-books priced for market expectations.

Here's the rub -- this new paradigm would require them to release control of the books for the e-market to the author.

Think about it -- authors often have the time and the motivation to get their books on the e-market. They're willing to go through the "X number of steps" themselves or to contract with someone who will. They don't have huge overheads, as print publishers do.

Why don't print publishers license e-rights back to authors? Let the authors take control of the book's e-marketing, including pricing, and instead of taking royalties from the publisher, the author pays a small percentage back to the publisher on net sales.

An aside: for many down-list authors, "royalties" is a foreign concept, and they're unlikely to see any from their print publisher anyway.

Licensing eliminates all those pesky steps the publishers moan about in taking books to the e-market. It allows them to focus on print, their primary market, and just collect the checks for the e-book editions without having to hassle with the conversion and marketing of them. Yes, they'd probably cringe seeing their authors offer e-books for 99 cents. But that's part of building readership and consumer trust. Low pricing lures consumers to a product. The more consumers who buy and like a book, the higher the possibility of getting that elusive "buzz" going that publishers yearn for.

And that brings me back to the other aspects of author-publisher relationships that are changing -- the authors who bypass print entirely, launching books themselves in the e-market. Then, if they realize some success, print publishers come along and offer a print contract. This has already happened with YA author Amanda Hocking, who was selling thousands upon thousands of copies of her e-books before she landed a print contract with St. Martin's Press. And recently, there was the case of Jon Krakauer, whose expose, Three Cups of Deceit (of Greg Mortenson's bestseller Three Cups of Tea), started life as an e-book and recently sold to Knopf for print.

In these cases, it's as if print rights become the subsidiary rights, isn't it? The author dives into the e-book pool because of its enticing freedoms -- freedom to write what he/she wants without a print publisher's constraints or just the freedom to publish without going hat-in-hand to the Big Six in New York. But that doesn't mean authors forgo a future in print.

Now, finally, back to the statistics that started this blog and the implications of all my points.

For some publishers, losing a third of their market share could be devastating. Genre publishers, for example, release the majority of their books in mass market paperback. Seeing "gold in them thar hills" of e-publishing, publishers are releasing previously print-published books into the e-market. But the problem is they still need to go through all those conversion steps to reach that market, so they're loath to price their e-books at what e-book consumers want.

More and more authors, meanwhile, don't mind taking the time to convert their own books for the e-market or releasing new ones straight to that market. Since they don't have the massive overhead of print publishers, they can offer their books at an appropriate e-book price point. Not only that, in many ways authors have become better equipped to actually sell their books to the reading consumer, a territory traditional publishers ceded long ago when they decided to focus the majority of their marketing resources on bookstores, encouraging the author to reach out directly to readers. (I've often joked with fellow authors that publishers know how to select, edit and print books, but they don't know how to sell them.)

In this new world, publishers should consider e-rights licensing agreements with authors, relinquishing control of the e-books to the people who actually have the motivation to sell the books.

In this new world, Big Box Bookstores will continue to fade in dominance as authors and publishers slowly learn how to find actual book readers instead of booksellers in the market.

In this new world, selling print rights could become akin to selling subsidiary or secondary rights after an initial e-book success.

Them's my thoughts. Now, scurry on over to the Istoria Books website and take advantage of the Gift of Summer Reading Sale -- most of the inventory is marked at 99 cents, including the first book in award-winning romance author Jerri Corgiat's Love Finds a Home series, previously published by Penguin.


  1. As a publisher I understand all the intricacies of this battle. But I also see something else. Those people complaining about how expensive it is to prepare an eBook for publication have some valid points, but there is always another side to the coin.

    I can only speak for myself when I say that I price our eBooks for several reasons, sales potential and consumer relations. I need to sell books, eBooks or otherwise. It is considerably more costly for me to publish print books and then I am forced to deal with shipping and return costs. These alone can be devastating. The lower I price an eBook, the more potential I have for selling more copies. Even at a lower price I still am making more money selling 100 eBooks at 99 cents than only 5 books at $2.99. It shows in the checks I receive from distributors.

    Now, the consumer. I get that money is tight. I also get that without my bookks to read I would go nuts and probably end up in jail for doing bad things to people who annoy me. :)

    Right now, we have chosen to sell the majority of our books at $2.99. I think this is reasonable. It is a third of the cost for a mass market print book. We may drop prices a bit for a short time, but ultimately once the economy gets out of the toilet, we will be able to put our prices back up and consumers will be able to afford those prices without suffering.

    The one thing I urge people, both authors and consumers, is that we charge money for our products because we are trying to make a living. If I don't sell books, I don't make money. We all need incomes to survive. Readers, we don't price books to gouge you, we do it to cover our expenses and to support our families. We are not like insurance companies that charge $600 per month premiums and then refuse claims when we actually get sick and need to seek medical help.

    We are offering you a product that you have chosen and we do our best to make certain you are as satisfied as possible with your purchase.

    As for the comment on licensing e-rights, this alone has the potential to ruin many publishers who do take eBook sales very seriously and if this became an industry standard, I can tell you it would cause a huge problem overall. I think what it boils down to is that each author needs to find a home that works for them. Whether it is in someone else's house or if they build their own, they have choices. Authors and readers should not be allowed or encouraged to dictate how a publishing house runs its business, that is not how things work. If you don't like the temperature of someone else's pool, go get your own pool.

    Karen Syed

  2. I really think that asking consumers to pay $7 or $8 for an ebook is not outrageous. It is a book after all. Something that took months or even years to create. I don't think it should be given the same value of a pack of gum. I've paid $8 for an ebook and that was a savings of $5 off the print copy. That's a pretty good deal for the hours of pleasure it brought me. Sure, I understand the 99 cent price point is more enticing for an unknown author. But I'd rather spend my $ on something I want to read because of the attraction I have to the story - not because of the price.