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Literature & Technology: what’s it really worth?

Continuing on from my last column on whether or not writers should be paid for writing for the internet, this week I read an article about author Joe Simpson (Touching the Void), who decided to split from his publisher Random House over a dispute about ebook royalties. Random House were prepared to offer Simpson 25 per cent royalties for his ebook sales (well above the standard 10 per cent authors receive on physical book sales), however Simpson believed he was entitled to 50 per cent royalties. The author and the publisher could not reach a deal and so they parted ways, with Simpson taking it upon himself to publish his own ebook editions of his books. This begs the question: what is the worth of the ebook to the publisher, the publisher to the author, and the author to the publisher?

I fully support Simpson’s decision in this case. While it has taken a long time for publishers to accept that 25 per cent royalties on ebooks should be the minimum paid to authors, it really is time they started moving with the times and acknowledged that ebooks are changing the publishing industry, and the dependence authors once previously had on a publisher is diminishing. Granted, some new, unknown authors still need the support, publicity and backing of a publisher to get their writing noticed, but for seasoned published writers such as Simpson, he has very little need for a publisher to publish his ebooks, as he can easily do it himself and make more money by removing the middleman.

More and more digital-only publishers are emerging, offering attractive royalty rates to their authors. Many offer 50 per cent royalties to their writers, yet also state that their authors are expected to share publicity and marketing duties with the publisher. This implies that in exchange for earning a higher royalty on their work, authors are expected to contribute more of their time to marketing and promoting their work. But this is an expectation with any publishing deal, even for the major publishing houses, so offering a lower royalty rate under the guise of a better marketing campaign is completely unjustified, particularly when dealing with ebooks, when the author and how much the author is willing to do to promote their own work is crucial to the book’s success.

In the article, Simpson encourages other authors to take a stand and not be bullied by their publishers into a substandard royalty deal on ebook sales. Which is good advice if you’re an author who has solid physical book sales and is therefore in a position to negotiate. If you’re an emerging writer who has just landed your first book deal, it may be a little harder to convince the publisher of your worth.

And it all comes down to worth- the worth of the written word, the worth of the author to the publisher and the worth of the publisher to the author. And most importantly of all, what the reader believes the text is worth to them. It is a vicious cycle. If writers and publishers can’t see the worth in what they write and publish in digital formats, then why should the reader see the worth in it? And if the reader can’t see the worth, then why should writers and publishers continue to persist with the format?

I think it’s pretty clear that readers can see the worth- so long as the content is free. The challenge is in making readers see the worth of paying for digital content, and perhaps part of making that happen is for readers to see authors standing up for their rights and demanding their fair share. After all, why should readers take digital content seriously if the writers and publishers of that content don’t?

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