This one time at Writer's Camp…
Rights and Reality
I wonder at just how odd it seems that many authors are more than willing to accept the status quo when it comes to dealing with publishing houses. Many authors seem to be ignoring their digital rights regarding their books in the quest to see the book on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or someplace like that. In that, they don’t realize that most publishers of a new author are only going to print maybe 5,000 copies for a first run, unless the author got a HUGE advance (probably not). Okay, well let’s look at the math for a second and you’ll understand why ignoring your ebook rights is a Bad Thing.
There are 1,350 Barnes & Noble stores (affiliated and otherwise) in the United States. There are 1,000 Borders stores in the United States. Right there, that’s 2,350 stores. You have maybe 5,000 copies of your first print run. Now, both of these companies have to decide amongst thousands of other titles which ones they’re going to carry. Sometimes, just sometimes, they carry a local author’s book at a specific (or two, there’s two B&N within 6 miles of me) store. Usually that is because the author got off his (or her) butt and started bugging the crap out of the managers at said store (sorry Lisa, I promise to quit harassing you once I see my book on your shelf. Same to you, Paul). Local authors usually do good at their B&N, since they used all available means to get word of mouth about their book going and doing lots of signings and whatnot.
But what about that store in Sioux City, IA? They most definitely haven’t heard of you, and they (more than likely) are NOT going to be ordering copies of your book. So while you may gloat (feel free to gloat, really, it’s all good) about seeing 10 copies on your B&N or likewise’s store, nobody else in American gives a damn about your book. It’s the sad, cold truth.
So there is your publisher, all lonely and pissed, because they currently have 3,500 copies of your book taking up space in their warehouse. Sales have been sluggish of the 1,500 copies that were ordered by various retail markets, so the stores start to ship some of the books back. Your sales figures plummet even further, because you didn’t know that bookstores would be so cruel. The publisher is fuming and begins to kick itself for giving you that $5,000 advance. Next thing you know, you’re getting an email from a buddy who saw a copy of your book in the bargain bin at Kmart for $2.99 and your publisher won’t touch you with a ten foot stick. You won’t be getting any royalties from that book.
Meanwhile, your electronic rights have been doing decent. Oh, nothing to buy a house with, but enough to perk your spirits up after that soul-crushing realization that the publishing world is a bitch to succeed in. So you’re eagerly awaiting the royalties from your ebooks, which would be nice because you’ve got an electric bill due that you had anticipated paying off with your royalties. But your publisher, due to you not paying too much attention to your digital rights, decided that they’re going to use an accounting trick to cover their losses from your book advance with your ebook sales which you, due to your negligence, didn’t notice buried in there as a clause. So instead of that $1,435.00 check, you get $0.
Insert swear word here.
It pays to seek out a contract lawyer to go over things before you sign. The lawyer may charge you $75-$150 for the hour it takes him/her, but that money could save you later. If you have an agent and this happens, it may be time to start asking some pointed questions about how something like that can slip through.
The smart thing to do is to have the ebook and print books be two separate entities on the contract. Because the thing about the ebook is is that it should be a separate entity in your contract, much like a hardcover and paperback are different royalty rate. You should be able to push for 40% royalties on ebook sales while settling for the industry standard of 15% for hardcovers. I don’t remember off the top of my head what the standard for paperbacks is, but unless you’re selling romance novels like hotcakes you aren’t going to be seeing a lot from paperback sales.
Now, a publisher will argue that all royalties should and will go towards covering that advance you received. If you allowed it to happen in your contract, then they’re right. However, nothing is forcing you to sign a contract you don’t fully understand or have read. The publisher wants your book if they’ve sent you a contract; you are in a position of strength here. It may not seem like it, but they really want YOUR book. Trust me. They get thousands of submissions a year, and of the thousands, they choose yours. Push to get some things you want or what you feel is fair. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. They’re not going to pull the contract off the table because you want them to help more with the advertising or whatnot, or because you want slightly higher royalties and control over your digital rights.
Remember, they want your book. Yours.