Thursday, July 24, 2008

15% of What?

One of the thorny issues that continues to hold up the full adoption of ebooks by publishers is the question of rights. Should that be a question or many questions on rights? The problem is that for an industry based on content and rights we have failed to get a grip on the core information and focused instead on the easier logistics and supply chain standards , which are still important but pale into insignificance to those of rights in the digital world.

We read Jim Millit’s piece in Publishers Weekly on the Authors Guild and Simon and Schuster and wondered who is kidding who in the protracted tale of hardship, trust, contracts and abuse. On one side we have the authors who should be paid a fair price for the extension of the work into the new digital formats and on the other the continued tales of high investment and costs of digitisation and the cost of establishing the market.

Where do we sit?

First, the author right to revert is a given and must never be surrendered by the author under the false statement of ‘always in print’. As we see more and more publishers trawling of the backlist, delving into past sellers and creating general quick cheap wins we recognise that the author can do that himself today and servicing the long tail is relatively cheap and easy. As they demonstrate the publisher’s commitment to a work, the physical reversion rules often make good sense. Merely listing it on print on demand services is a one off and cheap exercise. Making the work into an ebook can be equally cheap and offer POD as well. Term time licence to digital copy is probably the second best solution. However does the digital copy remain with the publisher and have to be recreated or is it surrendered at rights reversion?

Reward is a lot harder as publishers have been slow to invest in content technology so face large initial investments. However, once digital workflow is achieved the incremental cost of creating an ebook is cheap, especially if the previous physically orientated processes are fully replaced. So in some respect we are talking of a set up investment and one off back list conversion. What an author should earn should be based on what revenues they can generate, the time and effort involved and obviously the cost. However, publishing is publishing and predicting winners is not easy. Making the author, in effect cross subsides the digital investment, also doesn’t make sense unless the terms also recognise that when the revenues rise they should also share the rewards.

The issues that we all tend to skirt around is to do with pricing and geography. Once produced digital files are cheap to maintain, distribute and repackage. What could happen is that we see a price reduction as the market establishes itself. Will the price of the digital be set against the current in print physical format or be separate? Digital incurs tax, which tends to be absorbed in the RRP and so creates an automatic dilution of potential revenues and a new price mark. Then we have the different territorial and format prices and before we know where we are, we are all confused as to what any percentage is a percentage of.

Trying to create a standard rule for society or guild of authors, may make sense to some, but it makes little sense to those, who are by their sheer creativity, are all individuals.

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