digital rhetoric

digital publishing rights

Kate Pullinger has an interesting piece in the Guardian that I picked up on from a Dave Parry twitter regarding royalties for writers moving into the digital medium. There seems to be a fair amount of disagreement going on there over what author royalties are typically like (Pullinger says 10-20%) and whether or not going digital incurs so many more costs for the publisher that it ends up being just as expensive as print.

Here’s where I imagine the expense coming through:

  1. DRM protection and enforcement
  2. Creating a quality digital product. That is, if you’re going to give it away for free I’m happy with a PDF of the print book, but if you want me to pay for it, then I might expect something more, eh?
  3. So many platforms, so little time. Again, if I’m paying, I’m likely to want to "have it my way."
  4. Rethinking your industry. We still don’t really know what an electronic book is.

Here’s the interesting thing, though, and I’m always going back to these stats b/c they are so illuminating of the book industry.

Book sales 2004, borrowed from Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail.


























































    Book Sales, 2004
Sales Range Title Units
1,000,000 or more 10 17,396,510
500,000 to 999,999 22 12,798,299
250,000 to 499,999 64 22,252,291
100,000 to 249,999 324 46,858,835
50,000 to 99,999 767 51,858,835
5,000 to 49,999 23,047 280,000,591
1,000 to 4,999 67,008 149,093,614
100 to 999 202,938 69,548,499
sold 99 or less 948,005 14,346,717
Total 1.2 Million 665 Million+

So what should this information tell us? Well, let’s assume some generous stats. Let’s say you write your book in two months, you’re happy to gross $3000 a month, and that you’re earning $2 royalty on each copy. So you need to sell 3,000 copies in a year. Depending on the kind of book you’ve written maybe you can make more money down the road, but let’s set that aside for now. You’re looking at being in the top 3-4% of book sales for 2004.

More to the point, about 95% of books sell fewer than 1000 copies in a year. Yes, maybe they do sell copies over more than one year, but I’m betting 90%+ never sell 1000 copies.

Seriously, you might as well give your book away for free. Even if you’re an author in the 1,000-4,999 category, giving away digital copies of your book might make sense. The publisher obviously wants to squeeze every dime out of the publication but as a writer you can cash in in other ways, right? By making your book more accessible you can expand your reputation, which, depending on your field, might mean consulting, speaker engagements, public readings, giving workshops, future writing assignments, and so on. It is a gamble, but how much money are you gambling there. Right now, digital sales aren’t that big. You’d have to wonder if they’d even be 10% of print sales. I’m sure it would depend on the kind of book you wrote and many other factors.

I realize that publishers aren’t like to just give away digital rights, but in many cases it would almost seem worth it to even give up royalties on print copies in exchange for complete control of digital rights. I know that as an author you don’t go into the situation imagining that you’ll sell <1000 copies, but be realistic. The value that you’re getting from the publisher isn’t in royalties. It’s in editing, book design, and marketing. But it’s primarily in the imprimatur that says "this book is worthy of publication." Of course I imagine that many of these low-selling books might be self-published. I think that’s a good choice in some cases, but I’m not going there in this post.

Think about it in terms of academic texts. You’re faced with two texts. One in print @ $24.99. The other is electronic and free. Both are in your field and address similar topics. Both have been published by academic publishers. Neither is authored by a "big name." Perhaps you’ll read both, but there are a dozen other books to buy as well. So you’ll have to choose which books you’ll plunk down money for and which ones you might get from the library if you have time. However, you’ll certainly download the free one, right? I mean there’s nothing to lose. Maybe you won’t end up reading the whole thing, or maybe you’ll get into it and decide you want to buy a print copy. When it comes time to teach a class and you start thinking about textbook costs….

Anyway you get the idea. And then as the author of the downloadable book you hopefully gain increased reputation which might lead to any number of things–future pubs, grants, better job, etc. Plus you are making your work available to the world, which is why we do this writing thing in the first place.

So my point is, if you are a top-selling author, then yes, by all means you should be concerned about royalties on your digital texts, just like Metallica had to worry about Napster I guess. However, for the rest of us, I think there is a very different route to take.

One reply on “digital publishing rights”

Just came across your blog…interesting. I’m adding your feed.
More and more, I’m thinking that what an author really gets from a publisher is that “worthy” imprimatur and distribution into bookstores.
I’m curious to hear your perspective on self-publishing. Editing and book design can be obtained freelance, though quality does vary and you get what you pay for. Marketing also can be hired thru a PR agency, though all authors – even those with a major publisher – need to do a good share of their own marketing these days.


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