“I want to keep my e-book rights!”

This is something that authors may start saying when negotiating contract rights. After all, they’ve seen JA Konrath do well with his e-books, so why not keep a bigger piece of the pie? As I wrote in my blog post All Writers Were Not Created Equally I outline the reasons that what rocks for JA won’t necessarily rock for you.

But this post isn’t about authors who decide to forgo publishers altogether, but are negotiating with publishers for print/e-book rights. Here is a big thing to consider: This is a deal killer.

And here’s why:

It’s true that many things in contracts are negotiable – foreign rights, movie rights, royalties, sell-through break downs, audio book rights, etc. But with the e-book phenom, publishers are about as likely to negotiate e-book rights as I am to increase the beagle’s weekly tequila budget.

For publishers, doing an e-book is the natural extension to the print rights. We’ve already spent thousands on editing, cover design, interior design and layout, marketing and promotion, so it goes to reason that we will insist on the e-book rights.

Avoiding Confusion

Physical and e-books are the peanut butter and jelly sandwich of the publishing industry. They go together. There was a comment in my prior post about how authors in the near future might have two publishers; one who does physical book and the other who produces the e-book.

Who’s on first? I don’t see that happening for a single minute. Creating an e-book is very simple for us because we’ve already gone to the expense and done the hard part. If we went to a two-publisher system for a single title, who would take precedence? Would the e-publisher rush the book out to market, thus usurping the print publisher’s ability to splash onto the market first? Print publishers put a ton of energy into marketing books, and they aren’t likely to be thrilled at having their thunder stolen.

Editing: Then there is the matter of editing. If you have two editors for a single title, you could very well end up with two different books. How I edit a book is quite different from another editor, so the door would now be opened for “which book was best?” A print publisher, who has spent far more money on their books than an e-publisher, isn’t going to sit idly by and watch sales slip past them.

Control the timing

Print publishers want to control the timing between their various mediums. For instance, publishers who print hardbacks usually keep them out there for about a year before going into mass or trade paperback. The same thing goes for print to e-book. Many are only allowing the print version to be available for six months before releasing them in e-books. Others are releasing them at the same time.

If they don’t have the e-book rights, then they lose that control. Again, no publisher wants to spend gazonga bucks only to be scooped by the e-book.

So before you insist on negotiating your e-book rights [provided the publisher hasn’t already prepared a voodoo doll in your honor], here are some things to think about:

File: You’ll have to create a whole new file since the publisher won’t release their file to you. Yes, you already have the version that you submitted, and probably the edited file from the publisher, but if the publisher has a brain in their head, they’ll have wording in the contract that prevents you from using that file. So, as I mentioned above, you’ll be putting out two different books – your publisher’s version and yours.

Cover design: What goes for the file also goes for cover design. They own the cover, and you won’t be allowed to use theirs. You need to submit cover art when putting your e-books on the online stores. Will buyers make the association between the physical and e-book if they have two different covers?

Linkability: With Amazon, for instance, the e-book automatically links to the physical book – as can be seen here with Donna Ballman’s brilliant The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom. If the publisher doesn’t have those rights, there is no way…let me repeat that…NO WAY that they’ll allow your e-book to link with their physical book.

Remember, they’ve spent thousands on your book. This means they have a stronger marketing and promotion arm than you do [in general]. This means they will drive readers to the physical book. The only way people will find your e-book on Amazon is if they google your name or the title. Obviously you’ll put your book in all the other online bookstores, but you’ll do so without the backing of your publisher.

In a word; you’re working against each other.

ISBN: As I mentioned in my previous post, you’ll need to buy an ISBN for your book. It ain’t free.

As I said at the beginning, this is most likely going to be a deal breaker, so tread carefully and consider whether it’s worth it. You could very easily find yourself looking for another editor, or dealing with an agent who is ready to slice and dice you into a million little pieces for shark bait.

18 Responses to “I want to keep my e-book rights!”

  1. KarenG says:

    So glad to read this post. I can’t believe the advice I’ve been reading out there for authors “to insist on retaining e-book rights.” That makes absolutely no sense and I can’t imagine any press agreeing to it. Unless they’re a vanity press that already is making thousands off the editing and other “services” they “offer” to the sucker/writer/client. They why should they care? But for a legitimate press to pass on ebook rights? Why would they? Ever?

  2. But for a legitimate press to pass on ebook rights? Why would they? Ever?

    Exactly, Karen. The answer is, they wouldn’t. Ever. Few have considered the other side of this particular coin – what is the publisher going to say and why would they say it.

    Hopefully this post will offer some perspective to this argument.

  3. NinjaFingers says:

    Honestly, it sounds like you’re better off just letting the same publisher take them anyway. It’s far more efficient than doing things multiple times. Why would you want to edit the book twice, promote it twice…seems kinda silly to me.

  4. What authors should insist on is that the publsiher USES the ebook rights. Now, thereby hangs a tale, at least in the slow-coach UK amongst the bigger (slower) publishers

  5. Ohhh, good thinking, Nicola. I hadn’t thought of that one at all, since it’s silly to have the rights if you have no intention of using them. Yes, insist that the publisher cough up an e-book by X amount of time after release of the physical copy.


  6. NinjaFingers says:

    What about negotiation on specific ebook formats, Lynn? Although it looks rather as if Kindle is going to win the format wars, is it worth trying to insist on multiple formats?

  7. It’s up to the publisher to decide what formats they’ll use, and they aren’t going to negotiate what e-books they’ll produce. We’re all sort of looking around to see who the big winners are. Certainly Kindle tops that list.

  8. Camille says:

    This is why I am slowing down my marketing to traditional publishers right now. I know that publishers need the ebook rights – but so many publishers are utterly fumbling the handling of ebooks, I want to wait until the situation has stabilized a bit.

    I hope that the pros (agents, established authors) will work out what is the new “standard” not only for pricing and timing, but also for rights reversion. And as Nicola says simply USING the ebook rights.

    Of course the delay just gives me a chance to get more work done and polish it, and study what’s going on in the industry more. (And maybe write a few things specifically for the electronic market.)

  9. Chris says:

    Is the format for the I-pad different from what the kindle reader uses. I haven’t seen a kindle but that I-Pad sure is neat.

  10. NinjaFingers says:

    There is an application for the iPhone/iTouch/iPad that reads Kindle formatted ebooks, Chris. I would assume that there are also apps for other major formats, but I know there is a Kindle one for sure.

  11. Mark Souza says:

    What about authors insisting on a higher percentage from ebook sales, say 30 to 40%? With ebooks, the publisher has no printing costs, transportation, storage, or returns to worry about. Shouldn’t the sharing of revenues be more equitable on ebook sales?

  12. Mark, if you read my recent posts on e-book costs, you’ll know that idea of a freebie e-book is a misnomer. Yes, there are no returns, transportation, storage, and printing costs. But we still paid thousands to produce the book BEFORE we ever printed a single book. However, there is a cost savings with an e-book and royalty rates are higher to reflect that. Standard royalties for the large publishers is 20-25%.

    Chris, I got to play with the iPad last week, and while it’s a cool toy, I wouldn’t buy one because I hated the keyboard. They play Kindle books with their app, as Ninjie stated.

  13. Ingrid Ricks says:

    Hi Lynn,

    I’ve just been reading through your blogs for the first time. Thanks for all the great info – and for presenting it in such a human, funny way.

    The e-book discussion is particularly interesting to me. I wonder if you see it going the flip side – where books will first be released e-book only to test the market prior to investing in printing?

    P.S. I’m signed up to meet with you at the PNWA conference next month and am really looking forward to it.

  14. Phoenix says:

    Hi Lynn: I’ve gone through your archives looking for your perspective on this, but I don’t think you’ve covered this angle on e-books yet.

    If a writer is submitting a novel directly to publishers who are demanding exclusives with response times several weeks to several months out, is there a downside to the writer uploading their novel to the Kindle store and promoting a digital version while waiting on publisher responses?

    Assumptions being 1) Amazon doesn’t hold the ms under contract; the author is free to pull it at any time, 2) the writer is a professional editor or has had the ms professionally edited, and 3) the writer has access to a professional graphic designer so the raw work being digitally uploaded isn’t a complete embarrassment.

    Would traditional print publishers be concerned the author has already shot their promo wad on the digital front or would it not matter? And would publishers now consider this a published work?

    Bottom line: good business plan on the writer’s part or complete dunderhead move?

  15. Hi Phoenix, thanks for writing. You asked: is there a downside to the writer uploading their novel to the Kindle store and promoting a digital version while waiting on publisher responses?

    Publishing is undergoing many changes these days, so I’m not sure whether it’s a dunderhead move or not. If the Kindle version is selling well, then perhaps the publisher will see this as a plus. They have a bigger promotional and marketing footprint, so that would attract more Kindle buyers, along with the physical books.

    Problem is, most publishers are still feeling their way along with the e-book explosion, and it’s hard to say whether they’d be turned off or not.

    Truthfully, I’m not sure how I’d react. Adding the Kindle file is a small production expense and if I really love the book, there’s little that would get in my way.

  16. Phoenix says:

    Thank YOU, Lynn. I guess we’re all trying to feel our way through the opportunities and pitfalls together in the new e-world.

  17. No dice says:

    LOL! Self published author John Locke just sold his PRINT ONLY rights to Simon & Shulster (if he even gave them ‘those’ rights) to distribute his books to bookstores but he kept his digital rights! So, we self published authors have moved on from these worries already. But it was an interesting article and certainly something traditionally published authors might have to worry about. Hee hee.

  18. I’m glad this amuses you. Just keep in mind that for every John Locke, there are tens of thousands of authors who won’t sell their physical book to a mainstream publisher because their Kindle sales are in the dozens.

    I’m truly thrilled for John, but he’s a Cinderella story – just like those who vanity pub their book and end up selling so many that a mainstream publisher notices them and buys the rights.

    Has this happened to you?

    This is the exception, not the rule, so I’d temper my glee if I were you.

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