It's always about the money

Jonathan Galassi's Op-Ed in the NY Times this morning starts to make the case for the cost of an e-book, but then leaves it behind to well, crap on e-book distributors, I guess.

Galassi begins by claiming that e-book distributors aren't really publishers, because they don't do the hard work of putting together a book, shepherding a writer through the process, editing, promoting, and so forth, and while that's not completely accurate--there are new e-publishers which are doing just that and are breaking new ground in the industry--it's close enough. For now, that is.

Galassi is right to point out that there's a lot more to publishing a book than simply taking what an author has put together, formatting it, and sticking it up on Amazon. Writers are often poor judges of their own work, and a good editor can force them to re-examine what they're doing and how they're doing it. Good editors cost money, though--so do bad editors, but we're looking at value-added here--and so they add to the cost of producing a book. Same goes for marketing, and so on. I'm certainly not arguing that e-books should go for pennies just because they're in a digital format.

But the debate Galassi illustrates with his use of William Styron's estate isn't over the cost of producing new books, shepherding them through the editing process, and helping them capture an audience. It's over the ability of the traditional publishing houses to wring a few more bucks out of books they've already made money from. This is from an article over the Styron issue from a couple of weeks ago:

Agents say some authors and their estates are seeking alternative routes for e-books in part because they are dissatisfied with the digital royalty rate offered by most traditional publishers. That rate — typically 25 percent of net proceeds — generally results in authors receiving less than they typically receive on hardcover editions. Agents argue that because it costs publishers less to produce and distribute e-books, authors should receive more, not less, in digital royalties.
Again, we're not talking about new books here--we're talking about back-list books, which are, in economic terms, cream. And in the case of Styron, we're talking about a debate in which Random House has overreached, and is trying to usurp the electronic rights of the authors and their estates by claiming that old contracts cover e-books, even while their new contracts explicitly include the format.

There's a part of Galassi's argument that really bugs me, though.
The author’s heirs hold the copyright to his work. But should another company be able to issue e-book versions of Random House’s editions without its involvement? An e-book version of Mr. Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner” will contain more than the author’s original words. It will also comprise Mr. Loomis’s editing, as well as all the labor of copy editing, designing and producing, not to mention marketing and sales, that went into making it a desirable candidate for e-book distribution. Mr. Styron’s books took the form they have, are what they are today, not only because of his remarkable genius but also, as he himself acknowledged, because of the dedicated work of those at Random House.
He seems to be arguing that the publishing house should hold part of the copyright of the finished book, because of the editing and production work that went into it. What exactly is he angling for here? A percentage of any e-book proceeds from another distributor? A right of refusal on any e-book deal for back-list authors in his stable? It sounds like that to me.

But again, what Galassi refuses to note is that Random House has an option here--they can pay Styron's family what they're asking for as a royalty rate, or at the very least, they can bargain rather than simply trying to grab what is not theirs. Random House doesn't have to cede that part of the market to what Galassi refers to as "distributors." They can compete; indeed, the can argue that no one is better able to distribute Styron's work than they are, simply because they've done it successfully for so long.

Again, I'm sympathetic to Galassi's main point, which is that there are more costs than just the cost of printing a book when it comes to the publishing game, and that those costs don't disappear when a book goes digital. But that's no reason to play games with author's rights and royalties.

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