A year ago they were rarer than a very rare thing. There were more of them six months ago, but now they are everywhere – rare is the commute in which I don’t see at least one, and, notwithstanding inasmuch as which, more.
I write, of course, of e-book readers, not just the splendid iPad whose praises you have oft heard me sing, but the Kindle, Amazon’s proprietary e-reader, soon to be joined in its stable by two new touch-screen versions as well as the Fire tablet, designed to undercut St Steve of Jobs. There seem to be dozens of Kindles for every Sony e-reader I see, and now news has reached mes oreilles of the Nook, the e-reader brought out under the marque of Messrs. Barnes and Noble. Everyone’s at it, but once you have an e-reader, you have to have something to read.
The word is out, and that word is content. There is lots of free content to be had – new stuff that’s been released under a creative commons license or old stuff that’s out of copyright. But neither applies to new, mainstream titles, or older titles on a publisher’s back list.
This is where I come in. Some time ago, my father, who is canny about this sort of thing, suggested that I should revamp my 2004 title The Science of Middle-earth in time for the December 2012 release of the movie of The Hobbit. There’d be plenty of time for me to do a thorough re-write, correcting mistakes, updating the text and adding new material. My agent duly reacquired the rights, and came up with a cunning plan – to launch the second edition as an e-book, doing away with the whole dead-tree business entirely.
Well, today, I had a most illuminating conversation with my agent in which she filled me in on what promises to be a whole new world of publishing. In their search for new content, e-book publishers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble are approaching not just conventional publishers, but authors’ agents, in search of new material that they can use – perhaps material for which electronic rights haven’t been sold, or whose contracts made no specific mention of e-readers. Text has to be coded into one of two or three formats (it’s still early days – who knows which format will become standard?) before it can be published, but costs are low (the very low hundreds of dollars at the very most.) Pricing is still an uncertain game, but apart from that the business model is very simple, and, curiously, somewhat old-fashioned.
Most established authors (and I venture to include myself in that select band) are used to a business model in which the publisher pays money upfront, usually in two or three separate instalments: on signing the contract; on delivery of a manuscript that’s deemed acceptable; and on publication. This is called an advance, which is short for advance on royalties. This means that the advance is all you’ll get unless the book – first – sells enough to cover its costs, and, after that, sells enough to cover your advance. Given that royalties are typically of the order of six or seven percent of the cover price (which is often heavily discounted), you have to sell an awful lot of books to make anything more than the advance. Few are the books that make healthy royalties for an author, or, these days, any profit for the publisher. My books In Search of Deep Time and – especially – Jacob’s Ladder got a lot of critical acclaim when they were published, and to this day I am occasionally deluged by an appreciative letter from a reader, but they have yet to generate a cent of royalty. This model is great for authors but represents a substantial risk for publishers, who will shell out quite a lot of money (advances are in general non-recuperable) that they probably won’t ever get back.
Authors of academic books, though, almost never get an advance. They do get royalties, though, and because they haven’t had an advance, they’ll start generating royalties straight away. Academic books are often very expensive, and don’t sell many copies, but because of the cover price, royalties can be a nice little earner – with an emphasis on the ‘little’. My 1996 graduate-level text Before The Backbone was published on a royalties-only basis and to this day I can take Mrs Crox out for a modest annual dinner on the strength of it.
Because of the recession, and because publishers need to protect their overheads, it is becoming more and more common for publishers even of mainstream books to offer the second kind of deal – though with a twist. There’ll be no advance, but the royalty rate will be higher, 25 percent or even more. In this model, the burden of risk is shifted entirely onto the author. The publisher spends nothing at all until the book is prepared for publication. Even when the book is published, it still takes a long time for a book to pay off its overheads (printing, editing, design, distribution, warehousing, marketing, advertising, payments for prominent bookstore placement and so on and so forth) before the author sees any royalty. 25% sounds like a lot, but 25% of nothing is nothing.
This kind of deal was common a very long time ago if publishers found themselves having punt a lot on a risky, expensive project. This was the deal Tolkien was offered when The Lord of the Rings was published back in 1954. His deal with Allen and Unwin was zero advance and something like 30% royalty. Back then, nobody knew that the book would even pay its costs, let alone make its author and the publishers very wealthy.
Now, here comes something very clever. Publishers of e-Books tend to use the second kind of model. That is, they pay no advance, but a relatively handsome royalty. The killer, though, is that preparing an e-book costs almost nothing for publishers, especially if they are in effect republishing something that was once in print. Design is minimal. Editing is down to the author. Marketing and advertising is done by authors and – increasingly – agents, and uses social media such as facebook, twitter and blogs (like the one you are reading). Publishers don’t have to pay the sometimes hefty wedge to bookstores for prominent display spots in windows or at the checkouts. Authors go on blog tours rather than book tours.
But does the author then take on all the risk? Well, yes, but that risk is much lower than for print titles, for the same reason – when costs are so low, a book doesn’t need to sell so many copies to make a decent royalty. This allows for very flexible pricing – eBooks have the potential to be a lot cheaper than printed ones, so pricing can be targeted to particular markets, and there is a lot of scope for promotions and loss-leaders.
Ten minutes after I’d finished my conversation with my agent I’d sent announcements — cost free — of the forthcoming new edition of The Science of Middle-earth to two prominent Tolkien fan sites and three or four Tolkien-related Facebook groups, with a total readership of more than 300,000. That’s a huge potential market – and it’s already self-selected for interest. If you’re interested, it’ll be available for download in selected formats this time next year.
The e-future’s bright.