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Ebooks promise great monetization opportunities for authors, right? Maybe not.

The publishing blogosphere has lately been ablaze with posts about ebooks and ebook pricing. A contingent of ebook consumers are crowing that, in light of the recent Amazon/Macmillan standoff [1] and pricing precedent that was set, ebook prices will shoot through the roof. They recently attempted character assassination using a deplorable 1-star Amazon review campaign on at least one author after he spoke out in support of this “agency model.” The backlash continues, on- and offline.

Folks on the other side of the fence — publishers and authors, mostly — are pleased by the flexible pricing model. It ensures increased revenue opportunities, which they believe will benefit their livelihoods. Outspoken proponents believe the market will easily bear “beyond $9.99” pricing. Some authors suspect this new climate will empower them to influence their ebooks’ pricing; still others in the DIY self-publishing culture view this as an opportunity to better-control their financial fates. We’ll make a living at this writing thing, after all. Our future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades.

Regardless of the pro and con positions, both camps seem to agree that a substantial stake of The Future Of Publishing hinges on ebooks, and that these cantankerous days represent an embryonic Wild West of a new stage in publishing’s evolution. Everything’s in flux. We’ll find our way.

Yet I believe that the fate of ebooks, if they are indeed the Future Of Publishing, has already been sealed — which particularly impacts authors hungry to make a living wage from their works. Based on anecdotal and personal experience, large mainstream publishers lock in ebook rights as non-negotiable clauses in contracts. (Depending on genre, this often applies to audio rights, as well.) This means these publishers are empowered to sell an author’s content in every presently-existing monetizable format in whichever marketplace they choose, for whatever price they choose.

I can’t imagine this will change, and I’m not certain it should; these large companies have well-oiled relationships with retailers that make monetization worry-free for the creator. While this may remove authorial control, few authors have the skill sets or expertise to successfully navigate those business-related aspects of pricing, sales and distribution.

Authors with smaller publishers understand this, as they often retain ebook and audio rights to their work. If they wish to distribute their content in ebook marketplaces, they must personally birddog those opportunities. The upside: They can name their own prices for their content, and pray the marketplace will find those prices agreeable. The downside: This requires time and effort, and may have unforeseen complexities. Further, the might of an entire company has now been reduced to one person. That rarely scales well for publicity, for instance.

The mainstream publishing model works because it is — in theory — designed to keep the writer writing. New York handles publishing, publicity and distribution. And that last word, distribution, is key. These companies are already in bed with robust ebook retailers such as Amazon’s Kindle marketplace, and are approached by emerging marketplaces (such as Apple’s forthcoming iBookstore) long before DIY indies are. The wheels are already in place. The deals have already been made. When new marketplaces emerge, these large publishers get first dibs; that’s simply a good business practice for those new marketplaces.

This means that, despite the recent victory by Macmillan over Amazon regarding the “agency”-style flexible ebook pricing, mainstream authors will never be able to control in which retailers their works are sold, or how much those works will cost for the consumer. The fate of eventual ebook nigh-ubiquity and ebook pricing is already decided, thanks to the entrenched relationships mainstream publishers already have with existing and emerging retailers.

For authors who crave more control in this emerging frontier, the magic bullet appears to be DIY self-publishing solutions. Creators can certainly receive larger royalties this way. However, they do not receive the in-bookstore distribution benefits of a large publisher, or — if you’re a damned lucky author — the publicity and in-store marketing placement those companies provide. This applies to electronic marketplaces, as well: Those “featured titles” you see listed in the Kindle and iBookstore marketplaces require big publisher money and influence.

It is nearly impossible to make a living wage selling content the DIY way. It’s also nearly impossible to make a living wage working with a mainstream publisher.

If the current trends in publishing are any indicator, only the smallest percentage of authors will ever receive an equitable wage for the months (or years) they’ve invested in telling novel-length stories. This is not privileged insider information; this is well-established Fact. The rest of us cannot survive solely on the advances we receive. The rest of us do not have fanbases large enough to accommodate robust “beyond book” merchandising initiatives.

The romance of being a novelist is just that. Romance. Illusion. This is hard, anxious work — and it takes place in an industry in which entire careers are decided by sales in a marketplace that is falling to pieces, in which money is lost far more often than it’s gained, and where accountability does not appear to exist within a system that (often) cannot equitably support authors. Unless lightning strikes your book in a nigh-magical way, you are Forever Midlist.

Is there good news? Sure. According to the recent publishing news I’ve read, Macmillan (and presumably other publishers) is currently reevaluating royalty rates for ebooks, and will present new models in the upcoming months. With ebooks likely skewing toward higher prices, and authors likely receiving larger cuts of those prices, both publishers and authors will earn more than they do today. That’s a good thing. But rest assured it will be the publishers who are in full control of that process; most authors are simply so goddamned grateful to be published, they’ll take whatever they’re given.

So, if the headline-grabbing battle for the future of ebooks has already been decided — and if DIY efforts are nigh-unfailingly doomed to deliver incremental revenue results and nothing more — what does that hold for authors? For most, it’ll be more of the same within the current publishing business model: busting ass for advances they’ll often never earn out, and praying their content sells well enough to merit a thumb’s up for more books from the publisher.

However, other authors may see through this churning tempest and keenly spot other opportunities to generate revenue, using their talents in previously-unseen ways. These bleeding edge creators will not find equitable money in publishing as it is currently defined. They will not find it in the loss-leading Free model that some creators, including myself, have touted. They’ll find worthwhile compensation by telling stories in ways — and in marketplaces — that don’t yet exist.

Few are the authors who can sniff these emerging trends … but those who do will become first movers in a new space, and may very well benefit the most. True innovation and equitable compensation will not hail from the current models, be they traditional or electronic books. It will hail from the creatives who ultimately support both readers and publishers — the authors.

About J.C. Hutchins [2]

J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti and Macmillan Publishers. His latest creative endeavor is The 33, a monthly episodic ebook series.

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