Tag Archives: E-books

Looking for Tedium? E-Books Are Your Medium

In his wrap-up remarks at the 2010 Tools of Change conference, host Tim O’Reilly urged attendees to focus on “the boring stuff” that needs to be done to realize their vision of the future of the e-book industry.

I found this statement puzzling. Despite the widespread impression that e-book people are the jet-setters of the publishing business, the truth is that just about every step in the creation and publication of e-books is excruciatingly boring. In fact, e-book publishing may be described as long stretches of stupefying tedium punctuated by moments of numbing monotony.

Let me take you through a book’s conversion so you will understand what I mean. I urge you to have a strong cup of coffee to stay awake. Bear in mind that though this abstract will take but a minute for you to read, the actual operation requires dozens of man-hours per title. I say “man-hours” but “troll-hours” is more apposite, as the people who do it work in Stygian gloom, eat living things and snarl when poked with a stick.

A brief explanation is in order. Most books published by E-Reads are previously published works that went out of print and reverted to the author. In order to reissue them we scan the original printed volumes rather than use text documents furnished by the author, because the former have been copy-edited.

Scanning. The first task in the production of an e-book is scanning. The book’s cover and binding are stripped to facilitate the feeding of pages into the optical reader, and headers and page numbers sliced off to reduce garbage in the scanned document. Even if high-speed scanners are used the process must be overseen by a human. Monitoring a scanner has the allure of watching someone rake seaweed.

Proofreading. However state-of-the-art the scanner may be, a digitized document will invariably have errors due to misreading by the camera. The word “in” for instance may be interpreted by the scanner as “m”. Thus a proofreader must view and clean up the obvious glitches in the first-pass RTF (Rich Text Format) file created by the scanner. That process is called OCR – Optical Character Recognition. The RTF is then closely read and corrected by a proofreader who compares it word by word and line by line to the original published copy of the book. If you are ever given a choice between proofreading a text file and spending six months in a sensory deprivation chamber, take the chamber.

Final Review. The RTF – the basic building block of e-books – must then be reviewed page by page by a designer to make sure it reads seamlessly. “Once a book gets scanned,” explains Nathan Fernald, E-Reads’ production manager, “it tends to lose all of its formatting with the exception of single line breaks. And line breaks must be clearly delineated to prevent scene shifts within a chapter from running into each other. When we get a file back from scanning, I have to flip through the physical book page-by-page, comparing it with the file to see if there was any formatting lost such as centered text, indented text, extra line breaks, etc.”

The staggering monotony of this process will explain why I granted Nathan one day off every week. He was beginning to exhibit classic symptoms of going postal.

Formatting. Once we have a clean, error-free RTF we format it for various e-book platforms plus print on demand. For print editions, cover art must be sized precisely to the trim of the book using charts comparable to those used to navigate the waters off the Cape of Good Hope.

As if these labors were not excruciatingly demanding enough, we must then create…

Metadata. Metadata is vital book-related information required by retailers. It includes cover image, ISBN number, BISAC code, language, territorial rights, suggested retail price, publication date, brief description and other details and data. Retailers provide pages and pages of metadata definitions, specs and tolerances, all in fine print. And each retailer has different requirements or a different order of the same requirements. You can read about it in detail in Mastering the Mysteries of Metadata, but – long story short – it is comparable in complexity to the instructions for applying for a Fulbright grant, except that you can get away with lying on a Fulbright application.

ISBN Management. ISBNs are unique identifying numbers used in the book industry. They identify not just a book but every edition of a book. Publishing companies purchase a block of ISBNs and, after assigning them to each edition of each book, register them with R.R. Bowker, the official ISBN agency in the United States. (You can read more in Learning to Love your ISBN Number.) Of all the lassitude-inducing tasks performed by our staff, none compares to selecting, assigning, maintaining and registering ISBN numbers. It is like sorting jelly beans by color, except that when you are finished you are obliged to ship the jelly beans to a facility where someone else will eat them. Tales of woe abound. For instance, just when we had become resigned to the Sisyphean labors of managing 10-digit ISBNs the gods imposed 13-digit ones on us. Then Amazon informed us that none of our ISBN’s were suitable for the Kindle, and required us to produce unique Amazon identifier codes.

Royalty Management. Retailers furnish sales information in spreadsheets. In an ideal world the formats and information fields would be uniform. In reality royalty reporting is the Second Coming of the Tower of Babel. We have to reformat each and every retailer’s report so that our accounting system can read and process it. Though it is universally agreed that ISBN numbers are the key to successful royalty report generation, our filters constantly catch busted numbers requiring hours of sleuthing to set right. We find rogue data in other columns, too. All it takes is one misplaced article – “The” at the beginning of a title instead of at the end, for instance – to send our royalty tracker into paroxysms of indignation followed by stern instructions to mercilessly hunt and correct the offensive mistake.

There is much more that I haven’t reported, but I’m afraid it would make you suicidally depressed. I asked John Douglas, who manages our database, to tell us what is boring about his job. “I’m sorry, I don’t have time to tell you,” he replied. “I’m too busy doing a boring job.”

In conclusion, be careful what you wish for when you wish for boring stuff.

The most exciting thing about being in the e-book space is telling people that we are in the e-book space. Showing off a cool e-book to a civilian? That’s exciting. But making the e-book you’re showing off? I think I’d rather watch paint dry.

Richard Curtis

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We Used to Dump E-Trash on the Asians. Now We Dump it on Americans.

Four years ago we issued this warning about the dumping of used e-books and other computer devices. At last the issue is receiving some front page attention (see the New York Times‘s story Unwanted Electronic Gear Rising in Toxic Piles).

The only difference between then and now is that the E-Trash isn’t just being dumped on Asia’s poor. It’s now being dumped on America’s.

Below is the original posting.

Richard Curtis

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When the next generation of laptops, tablets and e-readers arrives, what’s going to happen to the devices you replace?

If what’s happening in Europe is any guideline, it will end up in a toxic e-waste landfill in Asia and Africa where the destitute, many of them children, will scavenge it for scrap. These scavengers incur horrifying and often fatal skin, lung, intestinal and reproductive organ ailments from the plastics, metals and gases that go into discarded cell phones, televisions, computers, keyboards, monitors,cables and similar e-scrap. Elizabeth Rosenthal, covering the story for the New York Times, tells us that “Rotterdam, the busiest port in Europe, has unwittingly become Europe’s main external garbage chute, a gateway for trash bound for places like China, Indonesia, India and Africa.

“There, electronic waste and construction debris containing toxic chemicals are often dismantled by children at great cost to their health. Other garbage that is supposed to be recycled according to European law may be simply burned or left to rot, polluting air and water and releasing the heat-trapping gases linked to global warming.”

Jessika Toothman, blogging on HowStuffWorks, describes how “A whole bouquet of heavy metals, semimetals and other chemical compounds lurk inside your seemingly innocent laptop or TV. E-waste dangers stem from ingredients such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, beryllium, barium, chromium, nickel, zinc, silver and gold.” In fact if you want to see what this “bouquet” of poisons is doing to your fellow man, woman and child, you can view this sickening video of a Chinese e-trash village.

One device not mentioned in Toothman’s list of e-waste is e-book readers. The obvious reason is that we are still in the first generation of e-book devices (or second if you count progenitors like the Rocket Book) and there haven’t been enough readers manufactured to make them a formidable source of trash like cell phones and TVs. But when the next generation of e-book readers floods us with Kindle and Sony rivals – better, cheaper, faster, more colorful, loaded with special features and options – will we simply add them to the tons of lethal junk earmarked for miserable dumps in China, Indonesia or Africa?

Because it is still young, the e-book industry has an unprecedented opportunity to exercise its social responsibility, as we recently pointed out.Here is a three-point program to make sure the e-books business remains green.

  • First, manufacturers must be compelled to disclose the chemical components of the e-book devices they produce so that we can evaluate environmental hazards.
  • Second, Amazon, Sony, Plastic logic, Philips and other developers must develop programs for either returning their devices for safe (and monitored) disassembly and recycling or for donation to students, armed services personnel and other charitable recipients.
  • And third, The cost of recycling and safely disassembling e-books must be built into the price structure of e-books.

Right now the hidden cost of computers and other electronic devices is human suffering. It is unacceptable for the e-book industry to boast about environmental advantages while secretly sticking the helpless poor with the bill or contributing to the poisoning of the world’s water and air. If safety measures and sensible recycling add $25 or $50 to the price of their devices, that is an acceptable tradeoff. Because it would be assessed equally on all manufacturers, none would have a competitive advantage over its rivals.

We expect the e-book industry to do the right thing.

Richard Curtis

Every Blogger owes a debt of gratitude to newspapers and magazines. This posting relies on original research and reporting performed by the New York Times.

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How Much Does It Cost You to Produce an E-Book? Part 1

In a post last spring DBW’s Jeremy Greenfield wrote,”Publishers are making a killing on e-books because they cost nothing to produce, distribute and sell and are almost 100% pure profit. At least, that’s what many consumers think.” I’ve been brooding about it since then and thought it might be helpful to give those consumers some insights into how publishers arrive at their prices.

Few subjects have elicited as much wild conjecture as the prices of e-books. Reading rabid allegations of price-gouging, one has to wonder what these critics know about manufacturing costs that we in the e-book industry don’t. Following the proverb Don’t judge another until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, it might be educational for you to imagine what it would cost you to duplicate the processes that at least one publisher – my own, E-Reads – performs to get a book into the marketplace from raw state to finished product.

E-Reads is among the oldest independent e-book publishers. From its founding our principle has been to split all net receipts with authors on a 50-50 basis. Although we occasionally publish original books, our stock in trade is reprints of previously published ones, particularly genre fiction such as fantasy and science fiction, romance, and action-adventure thrillers. Unlike self-published authors for whom the publication process is generally fast and inexpensive, E-Reads’ production line is artisinal, calling on skills – many of them quite demanding – drawn as much from Old Publishing as from New.

All publishers  incur three fundamental types of expense: hard costs, labor and overhead. Many authors contemplating self-publication look at the hard costs but don’t always focus on the softer ones, namely the value of their time and the cost of living.

Let’s, therefore, start with this question: how much is your time worth?  If you earn, say, $60,000 a year, your time is worth a bit under $30.00 an hour for a forty-hour week. That is the cost of your labor for publishing your own e-book.  But you also have overhead expenses to meet such as rent or mortgage, utility bills, transportation, computer equipment, depreciation and countless other necessities and amenities. When publishers prepare a profit and loss analysis for books they contemplate publishing, they tack on to their hard expenses something like 30% or 35% as the cost of overhead, and you should too.  By adding $10 – around 30% of your $30.00 an hour – onto your labor cost,  your true hourly expense is more like $40.00 than $30.00. Obviously, you should adjust these numbers if your time is worth more or less than that.

The first task we perform to reissue a previously published book is to accurately reproduce the printed text as a digital file. Even if you possess the original text file, for publication purposes it’s useless. The text you turned in to your publisher was subsequently copyedited and proofread. You may want to key into your computer the changes that your publisher made to your original text file.  That will probably take you a minimum of a week – 40 hours. If your hourly cost is $40.00 that’s $1,600.00, a foolish expenditure when it is so much cheaper to have your printed edition scanned.

Scanners in effect take a digital photo of every page of your book and create a crude computer-readable text. I say “crude” because although good scanners are 99% accurate, a 1% error rate in a 300 page book amounts to as many as 900 errors. In any event, scanning costs vary widely from $50.00 a book to several hundred dollars.  Let’s say $150.00, plus, say, an hour packing up and delivering or sending your book to a professional scanning firm.

You will then need to proofread your digitized text. Reviewing and correcting should take about one or two minutes per page, or about 450 minutes for a typical novel that will end up at 300 printed pages.  That’s about eight hours.

Once you have a clean file in hand you’ll want to convert it to ePub, the universal language of e-book publishing. The conversion software is a free download, but the time to convert your text and make sure it’s properly formatted for various retailers may take three or four hours. Say four.

You’ll have to make a cover.  If you choose to buy or commission commercial art the sky’s the limit. We use, and adapt, stock art, also known as clip art. We subscribe to a stock art service to guarantee that the rights to the images we use have been cleared. To the cost of clip art fees or subscription add the value of your time to produce the cover and write jacket copy (and don’t forget the bar code!).  This will all take two hours if you’re lucky. Better allow for three.

You’ll need to furnish a variety of metadata to retailers or they won’t accept your upload. That includes list price, territory, ISBN number, BISAC code, foreign currency conversion, sample chapter, and many other items. For a taste of what you’re getting into, you might want to read Mastering the Mysteries of Metadata first. But allow one or two full days. For the sake of argument we’ll split the difference at 12 hours.

If you want your book printed on paper you can do it cheaply enough through a variety of commercial processes. How good the book will look – many have special formatting issues – is hard to say. Because we are a professional publisher and our POD titles are sold on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers, we take great pains. It may take a day or two of special formatting for print on demand, for the editorial processes are quite demanding. If you want to adhere to our standards, let’s say one eight-hour day.

Assuming you’ve performed these tasks to perfection you will want to upload the book to various e-book retailers and a print publisher as well. E-Reads’ uploads are managed by Ingram’s excellent CoreSource, but as you’re only uploading one or two books it makes no sense to subscribe to such services. You can distribute via Bookbaby for $99.00, but if you prefer do-it-yourself uploading to all significant retailers it will take several hours of trial and error, for retailers often send you error messages and you will need hours more to troubleshoot and re-upload.  Three hours sounds about right.

There are other functions but these are typical ones.  Tallying up the hours you’ve spent we get 31. At $40.00 per hour that’s a cost of $1,360.00, plus several hundred dollars in hard costs.  Let’s round it off at $1,600.00 to get your previously published book back in print in all formats. That doesn’t include a penny for marketing and publicity.

In the next installment of this posting we’ll set some price points for your book and figure out how many copies you have to sell to make your money back plus a profit.

Richard Curtis

This blog post was originally published on Digital Book World as Are Publishers Making a Killing on E-Books? Part 1

 

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Amazon Alliance with Ingram: Policy Shift?

Of the many companies that have reinvented themselves in the violent upheavals of 21st century publishing, Ingram Content Group (as it is now called) stands out as one of the most resourceful.  It has transformed itself from what Publishers Weekly described as “the book industry’s quintessential middleman” to what former CEO Skip Prichard called a “centerspoke of an industry in transition.” At its core is the mission of “helping content reach its destination,” as Prichard put it, and to enable publishers do that efficiently whether the product is tangible or digital.

It’s likely that Amazon admires Ingram for the same reasons, for it has just  announced that it  has engaged Ingram to distribute the e-books produced by its recently created publishing company.  Those e-books will still of course continue to be sold on Kindle, but they will also be available throughout Ingram’s vast network of retailers, many of which are competitive with Amazon.

Laura Hazard Owen, reporting the story exclusively on PaidContent, writes that “The deal, with Ingram’s digital distribution arm CoreSource, will make the ebooks available to Amazon competitors like Barnes & Noble, Apple and Kobo — though, of course, those competitors aren’t compelled to stock Amazon titles.

“The idea of Apple selling Amazon’s ebooks,” adds Owen, “is particularly interesting, given the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Apple and book publishers for allegedly colluding to set ebook prices.”

The Ingram coup is a feather in the cap of Laurence Kirshbaum, who heads the East Coast operation of Amazon’s publishing operations. Amazon’s insistence on exclusivity has not only alienated competitors but worried authors seeking the broadest marketplace for their work. The alliance with Ingram suggests a shift in policy and offers the intriguing hope that Amazon Publishing will extend its good will to printed books and hold out the olive branch out to bookstores

You can read Owen’s full story here. And for a thumbnail description of Ingram’s transition, read Jim Milliot’s  Not Your Father’s Ingram

Richard Curtis

This blog post was originally published by Digital Book World as Amazon Friending Rivals?

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Literati Holdouts Yield to E-Book Allure: Why?

After stubbornly resisting conversion of their work into e-books, J. K. Rowling, Ray Bradbury, Judy Blume and, most recently, Thomas Pynchon, finally succumbed.  What persuaded them?

Cynics will say they sold out, surrendering to the siren song of riches as e-sales exceed p-sales for a growing number of authors, giving an adrenalin boost to dwindling fortunes.  Certainly the writer who does not respond positively to that song falls into Dr. Johnson’s classic characterization of “Blockhead”.

But is money their only motive?  Did these men and women of the highest integrity simply sell their souls for a pot of lucre?  Or was there some other reason they heeded the call to go digital?

A personal anecdote may shed light on why they did it. Over a decade ago the e-book company I founded, E-Reads, generated its very first royalty statements, and sales were modest indeed.  I happened to be having lunch with one of the authors who had put her book into our program, and when she asked how her novel was selling, I embarrassedly produced her statement.  “We sold one copy.”

She gazed at the statement, with its meager single-digit performance, for a long time. Then she looked up wistfully at me.  “I wonder who that person is.”

I’ve never forgotten her response, for it brought home to me the true, the only, reason that writers write: to be read. The money, the royalties, the fortunes even, are undeniably wonderful byproducts.  But ultimately the argument that clinches it for the holdouts is simple: You will reach more readers.

We need to be reminded, as I was that day, that writers write for love and would do it for nothing as long as someone – literally some one – were out there to read their work.

Details in After Long Resistance, Pynchon Allows Novels to Be Sold as E-Books by Julie Bosman in the New York Times.

Richard Curtis
This blog post was originally published by Digital Book World as Why Literary Elite Finally Say Yes to E-Books

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Bundles Want to Be Free

As digital technology evolves, the practice of bundling – packaging physical books with their e-book counterparts – is now coming into focus as a commercial option for publishers.  Though the goal of one-click delivery is far harder than advocates wish – as Rachel Deahl makes clear in a recent Publishers Weekly article Is the Time Right for Bundling?, the technical and commercial challenges will eventually be overcome.  When they are, we will be faced with the question, How much to charge for a print/e-book bundle?  In an effort to start the dialogue, one industry leader, Bloomsbury USA’s Evan Schnittman (describing the bundle as an “enhanced hardcover”), suggests a price of 25% over the price of the hardcover.  “The consumer wins,” he says.

We’re far from sure about that, and we also wonder if anyone else wins, either. In the summer of 2010 we raised the question in Bundling: Publishing’s Next Battleground.  We re-post it here to push the dialogue where publishers may not want to go.

Richard Curtis

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The following question is deceptively simple, and we urge you to take your time responding. How much time? Three or four months. You’ll need that much. A lot rides on your answer.

Here’s the question:

When you purchase a print book you should be able to get the e-book for…

  • a) the full combined retail prices of print and e-book editions
  • b) an additional 50% of the retail price of the print edition
  • c) an additional 25% of the retail price of the print edition
  • d) $1.00 more than the retail price of the print edition
  • e) free

The subject of this little quiz is bundling, a common marketing tactic in which two or more products are packaged and sold at a single price. In this case the package is a printed book plus its e-book iteration.

As simple as it sounds, bundling is shaping up to be the battleground for clashing publishing philosophies, and the time will soon come when publishers will have to choose one of the above strategies and put it into effect. Misjudging consumer attitudes could prove to be a big mistake and possibly a ruinous one.

The essence of bundling is to offer customers a discount for selecting the combo instead of the individually priced components, so choice a) above is a non-starter. But choices b), c) and d) reflect just how aggressive a discounter wants to be and the various thresholds at which consumer resistance is expected to melt. A good argument can be made for each and as the bundling issue warms up you can expect to hear them all endlessly debated.

Yet even the cheapest package – a dollar or even less than a dollar over the cost of the print edition – may not suffice to capture the consumer’s fancy. Why? Because many people believe they’re entitled to get the e-book free with purchase of the print book. How large is public support for that position? We need to take a poll to find out, but if anecdotal reports are any indication, they may be in the overwhelming majority and they are unquestionably the most vocal. You will certainly hear their outpouring of joy when one publisher steps up to offer a print and e-book combo for the price of the print edition alone. Our own prediction? Free will become the standard, and even ten cents above free will be a competitive disadvantage.

Economic factors aside, consumer negativity toward double-charging is a contributor to piracy. Comments sent to us in response to postings about piracy strongly suggest that the public expects digital versions of books to be tossed in for nothing when a printed book is sold, and if it isn’t tossed in, many of those customers will feel no compunctions about downloading an unauthorized copy. They simply feel entitled to it. Libertarian spokespeople like Cory Doctorow have articulated this sense of entitlement, and though some feel that their arguments go too far, there is a solid core of realism in their position. We can condemn the immorality of consumer attitudes ’til the cows come home; and we can (quite reasonably) complain that if people were willing to wait for the paperback reprint they should be willing to wait for the e-book reprint. It makes no difference: the public’s sense of entitlement creates an environment susceptible to the allure of piracy.

With so many sound arguments in support of heavily discounted bundles, why have we seen so little of it in book marketing? The answer is that it is harder to assemble print/e-book packages than it looks. Publishers that control both formats are in the best position to do it but the technology is not yet in place. Customers purchasing the latest James Patterson or Nora Roberts novel in a bookstore have no simple way to download the e-book in the same transaction. The publisher might offer a discount coupon but that requires a number of steps and clicks that discourage a quick and easy procedure.

What is wanted is a one-click experience: “Click here to order the print and e-book.” Such a deal might best be offered by a publisher on its website. However, the price of that bundle might undercut the prices offered by retailers or e-tailers for the individual components, and for publishers to compete with their own retailers is to cut their own throats.

Amazon is in a good position to offer print/e-book bundles but hasn’t done so yet, probably because it recognizes the complexity of the issues. Book pricing is already fraught with so much angst that adding bundling to the debate will undoubtedly induce cardiac infarction among book people already near apoplectic with worry.

For the record, we at E-Reads strongly support the position that the e-book version should be included free of charge with the purchase of one of our print editions and are working to overcome the technical obstacles to implementing our conviction.

We invite your comments and look forward to seeing the debate over bundling heat up on the next stretch of road to the future of books.

Richard Curtis

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For the First Time In History, Print Is Optional. Now What?

Despite the gloomy talk about the death of the book it’s pretty clear that printed books serve an essential function in our culture and will always be with us. For those who greet this statement with skepticism, we reiterate that there is nothing wrong with printed books – just the way they are distributed.

The big difference between the past and the present is that for the first time in history, printed books are optional. The implications of this fact are profound.

Until very recently the only mode for publishers to introduce content was print.  Printed books defined publishers. With the advent of digital technology, however, a new breed of publisher arose that can if it chooses publish a book originally in digital format and postpone the print edition or skip it altogether.  Well into the present decade traditional publishers like Random House and Simon & Schuster and Macmillan clung to the imperative to issue print volumes before releasing them as e-books.  Eventually they yielded to the exigency of releasing the e-book simultaneously with their print edition.  Issuing e-books without having to do print editions at all, however, is not a measure to be taken lightly.

One reason is commercial. Original e-books put traditional publishers at a serious competitive disadvantage. Whereas those houses currently pay 25% net royalty to authors, most independent e-book publishers pay at least twice that much, and self-published authors can get as much as 70% royalty by direct uploading of their content. The Hachettes and Harpers and Penguins can reason that they are adding value and brand-name prestige, but that argument doesn’t hold water for many authors who are simply in the game for money.

More significantly, by electing not to print a book at all, these so-called legacy publishers put themselves in danger of losing the very thing that defines them. What profiteth a publisher to gain the world and lose its soul? Today Random House is a completely different species from independent e-book publishers like Open Road.  But by becoming a pure e-book publisher, the playing field is leveled, and the difference between Random House and Open Road becomes simply one of scale.

When we talk about the death of printed books we are really talking about the death of printed books distributed in bookstores.  With the death of a Borders and the announced reduction of Barnes & Noble’s  bookstore floor space by 25%, print on demand, a business model that does not depend on store sales or the returnability of books the way traditional bookstores do, increasingly becomes an option. If publishers elect POD for all their books they will not only continue to make money from printed books but could potentially rescue their identities, and maybe their souls as well.

Richard Curtis

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Does “Storage and Retrieval” Mean E-Book Rights? Harper Lawsuit against Open Road Says Emphatically Yes

Towards the end of the twentieth century just about every book contract contained language granting the publisher computer storage and retrieval rights. Though the first people to employ the term probably did not envision e-books, the advent of digital technology sent publishing lawyers scurrying to their contracts to make sure they contained some variant of that term. For, in their opinion, the ownership of e-book rights stood firmly upon it. And when at the turn of the 21st century authors examined those same contracts, the existence of “Computer Storage and Retrieval” loomed like a snarling guard dog warning them to step no further across the owner’s line.

Though there have been some probes by authors, agents and startup e-book publishers of this and similarly ambiguous phrases in book contracts, none has ever been fully litigated. That may now change if a just-announced lawsuit is carried out to the max.

Over the Christmas holiday Publishers Lunch‘s Michael Cader broke the news that HarperCollins has sued Open Road, the independent e-book publisher founded by Jane Friedman (former CEO of HarperCollins incidentally), for infringing on Harper’s digital rights to a classic work of children’s literature, Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George. The author was not named in the suit, however.

Key to Harper’s position is the phrase in its contract with the author that “makes clear that the scope of HarperCollins’ publishing rights extends to exploitation of the work ‘through computer, computer-stored, mechanical or other electronic means now known or hereafter invented’ — language that serves only to reinforce HarperCollins’ exclusive rights to publish the Work as an e-book.”

There have been some previous territorial quarrels over e-book rights based on vague contractual terminology such as the phrase “in book form” in some Random House contracts issued long before Kindle was a gleam in Jeff Bezos’s eye. If there was no such thing as an e-book when the original volume was acquired, can a publisher claim that e-book was meant by “in book form?”

The following piece was posted on our blog when Random House, feeling threatened by newly created independent e-book publishers, decided to assert its rights in no uncertain terms.  Anyone interested in the Harper-Open Road dispute will benefit from this backgrounder.

Richard Curtis

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Random Serves Notice on Would-Be E-Interlopers
Like a wolf marking its territory against rivals, Random House served unequivocal notice today on what it perceives as potential e-poachers seeking a loophole in Random’s definition of “book”.

The warning was embedded in a letter from Random CEO Markus Dohle mailed or emailed to literary agents describing the company’s plans and initiatives in the digital world. Authors were also put on notice that they are “precluded from granting publishing rights to third parties that would compromise the rights for which Random House has bargained.”

“The vast majority of our backlist contracts,” writes Dohle, “grant us the exclusive right to publish books in electronic formats. At the same time, we are aware there have been some misunderstandings concerning ebook rights in older backlist titles. Our older older agreements often give the exclusive rights to publish ‘in book form’ or ‘in any and all editions’. Many of those contracts also include enhanced language that references other forms of copying or displaying the text that might be developed in the future or other more relevant language that more specifically reflects the already expansive scope of rights. Such grants are usually not limited to any specific format, and indeed the “form” of a book has evolved over the years to include variations of hardcover, paperback and other written word formats, all of which have understood to be included in the grant of book publishing rights. Indeed, ebook retailers market, sell and merchandise ebooks as an alternate book format, alongside the hardcover, trade paperback and mass market versions of a given title. Whether physical or digital, the product is used and experienced in the same manner, serves the same function, and satisfies the same fundamental urge to discovery stories, ideas and information through the process of reading. Accordingly, Random House considers contracts that grant the exclusive right to publish ‘in book form’ or ‘in any and all editions’ to include the exclusive right to publish in electronic book publishing formats. Our agreements also contain broad non-competition provisions, so that the author is precluded from granting publishing rights to third parties that would compromise the rights for which Random House has bargained.”

If Random’s position sounded familiar to some, it’s the same one that the company used in 2001 when it sued Rosetta, an e-book startup that offered digital editions of books by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., William Styron and Robert B. Parker, having secured them directly from the authors. Random had published the books before there was such a thing as the Internet, but nevertheless considered a book to be a book no matter what form it took. Random’s request for an injunction was denied by the court, and Random then filed an appeal. It too was denied.

Random and Rosetta eventually settled, allowing Rosetta to continue publishing the books but leaving unresolved the issue of who controls e-rights to books where the language defining them is ambiguous.

By issuing its letter to agents today, Random House reasserted its position that, ambiguous or not, the publisher considers the language in its contracts to grant it ironclad control over e-rights. Anyone who believes otherwise is advised to take a good sniff before venturing over the perimeter of Random’s territory.

Richard Curtis

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Hard to Make a Living on $0.00 List Price

As all frequenters of online bookstores know, read-inside-the-book features entitle e-tailers to publish a certain percentage of your book at no charge to encourage readers to sample the goods.

Content providers are given a choice ranging from a minimum of 20% to a maximum of 100%.  It’s a good policy, as it helps readers to browse.  In one case, however, readers were inadvertently given a window to get an author’s book free.

You probably don’t pore over the terms of your agreement with Kindle Direct Publishing, but if you did you would learn that one of KDP’s policies is that they have the right to lower the price of your e-book to match that of its competitors. This is an age-old marketing retail practice and far from extraordinary. However, the activation of this policy in the case of author James Crawford caused him serious inconvenience and potential losses in the thousands of dollars.

The problem occurred when KDP, believing that rival Barnes & Noble had dropped the price of Crawford’s book to free, changed its own price to zero as well. In point of fact, writes the author, B&N had not gone to zero.  It had merely offered the first three chapters at no charge as a come-on to customers.

Before he could straighten it out with Amazon he had lost revenues on more than 5100 copies given away at 100% discount.  We say “straighten out” but now that his book Blood Soaked and Contagious has been restored at his requested list price, Amazon has informed him it will not not refund revenues lost.  “We’re sorry, we’re unable to pay royalties for your sales when your title was listed at $0 on our website,” he was told in writing.  In writing because, as KDP users have discovered, “KDP does not have telephone contact with the outside world,” laments Crawford.

The complete cautionary tale may be read here. Two things you need to see for the following saga to make sense

Richard Curtis

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85,000 Titles Strong, Smashwords Pitches the Agents

Smashwords Introduces Ebook Publishing and Distribution Service for Literary Agents

Powerful, Proven Tools to Manage Ebook Publishing, Metadata, Distribution and Sales Reporting

LOS GATOS, Calif., November 17, 2011 — Smashwords, the leading distributor of indie ebooks, today introduced a new service for literary agents. The service provides literary agents simple but powerful tools to manage the publication and distribution of their clients’ indie ebooks. Service highlights include free ebook conversions, centralized metadata management, distribution to major worldwide ebook retailers, time-saving aggregated sales reporting across all retailers, and special merchandising at Smashwords.com.

“Literary agents will write the next chapter of the indie ebook revolution,” said Mark Coker, founder and CEO of Smashwords. “Agents represent the most commercially successful authors. These authors are now asking their agents to add e-publishing services to exploit the potential of their reverted-rights works and unpublished works. Although all authors have the freedom to self-publish, many would prefer to delegate the e-publishing and back office duties to their agent so the author can focus their energy on writing.”

Over 32,000 authors, small presses and literary agents have utilized Smashwords to release 85,000 ebooks in the last three years. 7,500 of these titles were released in the last 30 days.

Until recently, the Smashwords platform labeled literary agents as “Publishers,” even though most agents consider their authors the publishers of record. To address this subtle but important nuance of metadata labeling, Smashwords created this new service expressly for literary agents.

Agents have the ability to upload multiple books on behalf of multiple clients.Agented books appear as “Written by [Author Name], Agented by [Agency Name].”

When Smashwords distributes the book to retailers such as the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Diesel, the author is recognized as the publisher, not the agent.

Smashwords has also introduced a new home page catalog to showcase agented works, making it easy for readers to browse ebooks represented and curated by literary agents.

To work with Smashwords, agents simply sign up for a free Smashwords account, upgrade the account to Agent status (also free), and then upload books and metadata on behalf of their clients. A co-branded bookstore within Smashwords showcases the agency’s clients and allows readers to view books by recent releases, best-sellers, and highest rated. When readers browse the book pages of agented books, they enjoy contextual discovery links such as “Other books by this author” and “Other books from this agent.”

The Smashwords Agent service makes e-publishing fast, free and easy for literary agents. Service benefits include:

• Centralized metadata management – Agents control the book’s price (Smashwords retailers don’t discount), marketing description and other metadata at their Smashwords Dashboard. They make a single change once and Smashwords propagates
the update to all retailers.
• Aggregated sales reporting saves time – Each quarterly payment includes a downloadable report that makes it easy to map earnings to each of the agency’s authors. Agents can perform custom queries to provide authors granular sales reporting by title, date and retailer.
• Distribution to leading e-retailers – Smashwords distributes to the Apple iBookstore (32 countries), Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and the Diesel eBookstore. Amazon distribution is available through Smashwords on request. Books are also distributed to the native catalogs of leading mobile e-reading apps including Aldiko for Android devices and Stanza for the iPhone/iPod Touch. More distribution points in the works.
• Free – No fees for ebook conversion or setup. Smashwords earns a 10% of list price commission for books sold through major retailers (agent receives 60% list). The commission for sales through the Smashwords.com retail store is 15% net after credit card fees, with 85% net going to the agent.

Multiple literary agencies – including Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, the Beverley Slopen Agency and Larsen Pomada Literary Agents – are utilizing Smashwords to publish and distribute ebooks on behalf of their clients. Diversion Books, a publisher founded by literary agent Scott Waxman, is also a Smashwords client.

What literary agents are saying about Smashwords: “Smashwords has offered what many other self-publishing platforms do not, a way for agents to be involved with digital publishing without having to take on the title of ‘Publisher,’” said Abby Reilly, E-Book Project Manager at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, based in New York. “Giving our clients a space in the new and exciting world of digital publishing, while continuing to shepherd all aspects of their literary careers, is a thrilling challenge for our agency. We are delighted to be working with Smashwords to make this happen.”

“Smashwords makes it easy to begin exploring the new digital terrain,” said Beverley Slopen, whose literary agency shares her name and is based in Toronto, Canada. “It is an exciting time in publishing, a time like no other, and our authors want to be there. They are pushing us to broaden our knowledge and our skill set. While ebook publishing is not a substitute for traditional publishing, it adds an amazing new dimension.”

“I have been an avid Smashwords supporter since its inception, and over the past three years have integrated digital publishing initiatives in the career plans of all my clients,” said Laurie McLean of Larsen Pomada Literary Agents in San Francisco. “Most of my clients have both traditionally published books and ebooks in their bag of tricks, and it is exciting to see how they complement each other. While many people have been bashing literary agents as gatekeepers of the old guard in publishing, I feel that digitally-engaged agents are the perfect mentors to guide authors through these turbulent waters of opportunity. The new Smashwords Agent service has made my job even easier.”

Literary Agents – How to Get Started with Smashwords

Visit www.smashwords.com to sign up for a free account in the name of your agency. The confirmation email you receive will walk you through next steps. The “How to Publish at Smashwords” link on the home page at https://www.smashwords.com/about/how_to_publish_on_smashwords provides helpful links to a vast array of Smashwords resources.

For an online presentation outlining the opportunity for agents to serve the indie e-publishing needs of their clients, see this post at the Smashwords Blog and its accompanying Slideshare presentation, the Literary Agent’s Indie Ebook Roadmap: http://blog.smashwords.com/2011/08/literary-agents-indie-ebook-roadmap.html
or visit www.slideshare.net/Smashwords

About Smashwords
Founded in 2008, Smashwords is the world’s leading distributor of indie ebooks. More than 32,000 authors, small presses and literary agents publish over 85,000 indie ebooks at Smashwords. Smashwords has released over 7,500 ebooks in the last 30 days.

Smashwords makes it fast, free and easy for the world’s authors, publishers and literary agents to publish and distribute multi-format ebooks. Smashwords distributes to major online retailers such as the Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and the Diesel eBook Store, and also distributes to the leading mobile e-reading apps such as Aldiko, Stanza and FBReader. Smashwords is based in Los Gatos, California, and can be reached on the web at http://www.smashwords.com/. Visit the official Smashwords blog at http://blog.smashwords.com/.

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