Conversations With My Agent About E-Books

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.

About cromercrox

Cromercrox is a recovering palaeontologist, author and editor who lists his recreations as writing, beachcombing, playing hard rock organ, supporting Norwich City FC and falling asleep.
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17 Responses to Conversations With My Agent About E-Books

  1. Steve Caplan says:


    I am generally not a fantasy-fan, but enjoyed the Tolkien books thoroughly when I discovered them as an undergraduate student in the National Library at Hebrew University. One catch–I don’t yet have an e-reader, but that may change. I’ll have to make a tactical decision about e-reader (which one? vs iPad? any suggestion there?) sometime soon. But I’ll definitely get to the Science of Middle Earth. I like the title!

    Not having your breadth of publishing experience, I might still add one point which has also led to the big change in modern day publishing and the way contracts are signed–including my own, which also is a royalty-only contract (with no advance). Many publishers/small presses have moved into the P.O.D. or Publish-on-Demand technology that relieves most of the risk involved in traditional publishing where 1000, 5000, 10,000 or more books would be printed and then sit in a storehouse indefinitely. The P.O.D. model really took-off for self-publishing, but is really gaining appeal (for obvious reasons) for smaller publishers. Once an order is made, the book is generally printed in 20 minutes and shipped immediately. Of course in addition to your more traditional published accomplishments, you will be familiar with this model from “By the Sea.” So “Welcome Home, Sir” will be published by such a model, with decent royalties but no advance, and done by P.O.D. technology.

    With my previous novel “Matter Over Mind,” in addition to self-publishing a paperback with Create-Space (P.O.D., of course), I did also make an electronic version, not knowing what to expect. The paperback is listed at $14.99, and I originally listed the Amazon Kindle version at $4.99. About 20% of my sales were e-reader books, and I’ve recently lowered the price to a good cup of coffee ($2.99) to see if I can entice more readers. Sales continue to trickle in.

    Interestingly, my new contract does not cover e-books, so I can also make an e-version. the only catch is that I won’t be able to use any of the graphics/cover/layout from the paperback, and will have to generate my own. Unless a publisher picks it up for the e-book version.

    • cromercrox says:

      Thanks Steve – I have no idea which e-reader is best. I have the iPad Mk1 and it’s lovely, but the Kindle might be better as a dedicated eReader as its screen isn’t bright and glaring – but I have no experience of this myself apart from looking over the shoulders of other commuters. What do other people think?

      I had thought of covering POD in this post, but didn’t in case it made my head explode. Yes, fans, you can buy my self-published By The Sea in that format, in dead-tree or digits (as a pdf), and I was aware that small presses are going down that route – and, I shouldn’t wonder, large presses, too, as the POD model is the ultimate in intelligent stock control.

      I salute you, Sir, in making your own Kindle version. How did you do that? Did you do you own coding? Please do let me know – I’d like to make a Kindle version of By The Sea.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        Truthfully, I don’t remember how I did it! I basically followed the instructions for Kindle’s online submission (which I recall did recall quite a bit of fussing and was a pain in the arse, but not difficult). There was no coding or anything complex in the process, but there were a few times when trial and error was needed to see how it would look. 3-4 h of work, and it was sent off, and then Kindle had a 24 check of the format, etc. and it became available online. In that case, I was able to use the same cover, so that was not an issue. Bottom line is that a techo-savvy person like you should have no trouble doing it on your own in a short time.

        • Cromercrox says:

          I’ll look into that for By The Sea, though I suspect the service mightn’t be available for people outside the US (CreateSpace has this limitation, or did when it started.)

          • Steve Caplan says:

            I may have misled you–it’s actually Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) that you need for the e-book, not CreateSpace, and a quick look at the site suggests that this is available for publication in both the UK and Germany as well as the US. Here’s the link to the main page with the information:

            I think the formatting really isn’t a big deal, and the instructions are pretty clear.

            Good luck! Shana Tova!

  2. Greg Laden says:

    I would definitely get that for my Kindle even though I already have a hard copy around here somewhere.

    • cromercrox says:

      Thanks Greg – what’s your opinion of the Kindle as a reading experience, whether versus print or other eReaders?

  3. Andrew Burt says:

    Absolutely! And I’d add that 25% is a poor ebook royalty rate. At my ReAnimus Press, for example, for work from pro authors we do 50% minimum. We’re geared toward helping authors who aren’t into doing their own ebook production the way you’ve done; scanning from old print copies, OCRing, carefully proofreading, new cover art, etc. You know I’ve been an ebook fan and evangelist for a while now so I’m doing what I can to help get all those old paper titles reanimated. (Especially out-of-print old paper titles. My favorite example that we’re doing is Ben Bova’s first novel, The Star Conquerors. It had a limited first release and has been out of print for decades since. Used copies are so rare they sell for hundreds of dollars now, which prevents people from being able to read it, so to me this is an ideal role for ebooks to play.) As you say, the e-future is definitely stellar.

    • cromercrox says:

      Hi Andrew, and welcome to the End of the Pier. I didn’t know you’d gotten into e-publishing! (For those who don’t know, Andrew runs the ifiction site and kindly hosted a very early version of my SF bonkbuster that’s currently laboring in my things-to-be-revised list.)

      About the 25% rate – my agent, also, said that although big e-publishers such as Amazon tend to tout that rate, agents treat it as a starting gambit, and royalties after negotiation are often a lot higher.

  4. Ken says:

    Since I’ve never read the dead-tree version (shame, shame, I know), I look forward to the release of the e-book next year.

  5. Brian Clegg says:

    Good stuff, Henry.

    The only thing that surprises me is your comment ‘perhaps material for which electronic rights haven’t been sold, or whose contracts made no specific mention of e-readers’ – almost all my contracts have included electronic rights since well before SoME was published, so you are lucky to be able to do this. The only situation in which I can issue ebook versions of any of my titles is where a book has gone out of print and the rights have reverted.

    What also surprises me is how slow some publishers are to pick up on ebooks. I really can’t see why they don’t all do ebook versions (Kindle at the very least) as a matter of course alongside the dead trees.

    • Cromercrox says:

      It all depends on the small print. If you retain the copyright to the text, and the publisher has rights to the made-up, designed pages, it could be that you have e-rights. In the case of The Science of Middle-earth I wanted to reclaim all rights so I could do a new dead-tree edition, but it was my agent who suggested an e-book might be a better bet – so the whole issue of who had the electronic rights didn’t arise.

  6. ricardipus says:

    Bloody hell. So that dead-tree version that I bought not only didn’t make you any $, but also is soon-to-be out of date. I’d apologize, but I’m feeling hard-done-by. ;)

  7. cromercrox says:

    @Steve Caplan – thanks for the tech advice. If I have time (hah!) I might play with uploading By The Sea as an eBook. Once you’ve uploaded your book to Kindle, how do you go about selling the product?

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    It sounds like you travel and are frequently invited to nice places, Leipzig, Switzerland, etc. etc. Just prepare either a nice slide (or “trailer”) and spend a few moments at the end to promote!
    I’m heading to Oklahoma City next week, Pittsburg in Nov., Denver and Jerusalem in Dec., and Lake Tahoe in Jan. Each event is a great opportunity to showcase.

    You might also consider ordering bookmarks with the cover on one side and a summary on the other. Train rides and airline flights are a good time to hand them out.

    And of course if you have access to 300,000 Tolkien fans–well mermaids are a bit of a stretch, but I would still try to connect the dots!