Sunday, March 23, 2008

On The Instability of E-Publishing

I was working on my manuscript when I took a break to do my daily tour of the Internet.

Imagine my surprise to stumble unto a full-fledged argument titled "Where the Hell is EPIC?" over on Dear Author here.

Jane, one of Dear Authors' stalwart founders, was complaining about EPIC, the Electronically Published Internet Connection (see the website here), the support organization for e-published writers. She says:

In the past year, when we have seen more than one epublisher show their ass online and more and more authors being taken advantage of, I have found myself asking where the hell is EPIC? If EPIC, an association dedicated to epublishing can’t make a stand regarding the epublishing industy, what use is it other than to pat itself on the back and give questionably meaningful industry awards.

About a year ago, I applied for EPIC membership, wanting to learn more about the e-publishing industry. I'll admit I was taken aback to find they only admit persons who have already e-published (which I have not as yet).

The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Writers of America (see here) have the same rule. I can kind of understand why. Otherwise, they'd probably be swamped by millions of 13-year-olds with sci-fi manuscripts in tow.

What the SFWA HAS done is provide a lot of resources--including the famous Writer Beware site here--to help unpublished writers. EPIC does provide a lot of links, but the most useful thing I've found at their site is the sample electronic contract here.

I posted a comment at Dear Author, which I'm going to include here because it sums up my thoughts about the problems with e-publishing.

Putting aside EPIC and RWA for a minute, I suspect a lot of the problems within e-publishing result from two issues: (1) the grass-roots origins of the industry. Even the largest and best-respected e-pubs were mostly started by writers seeking an outlet for their own work; and (2) the desire of most writers to see their books in hard copy. This puts financial pressure on e-publishers who want to keep the authors who are selling books on their site and who are clamoring to have their books published in print as well. The e-publisher may not have the business skills to balance the risk of a print venture against their desire to grow.

The major differences between New York and the present e-publishing industry are intent and practices.

By intent, I mean New York is clear about the goal: to make money. Conflicts of interest such as the publisher’s desire to see his/her own work released simply do not pop up very often when you are part of a corporation reporting to shareholders every quarter.

By practices, I mean fiscal expertise and competency. Many e-pubs begin in someone’s kitchen where, with a laptop and a website, a person with some computer skills can go into business in days. Because you can do it, doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it.

I know people who have simply taken on multiple pseudonyms, put their own work out there and then sent emails to lots of user groups talking about the wonderful new e-publisher in town. Impatient and inexperienced writers flock to these new sites and learn the hard way about things like poor contracts and reversion of rights.

What an organization–be it EPIC or RWA–could do for writers is establish a list of criteria that would help the writer sort through the wheat and chaff to figure out if this or that e-publisher is in the publishing business for real or simply trying to maintain a credible face while promoting their own work.

I’m convinced RWA (I can’t speak for EPIC; I’m not a member) has the best interests of writers at heart. However, IMHO, they need to make a REAL effort to have e-published writers or people knowledgeable about e-publishing on their board to lend some expertise so they don’t keep making missteps when it comes to poorly crafted rules.

There are a number of e-publishers who I'm told have made the leap to become "professional" operations. However, I'm going to make a prediction. If the kind of scandals we are seeing continue, e-publishing is going to be ripe for a takeover by New York before the industry makes it to adolescence. Writers fearful of the instability and poor reputation of e-publishers will decide to forego the ~35% e-pub royalties presently offered to go with the 15% e-pub royalties offered by New York.

I truly believe e-publishing is the future of the publishing industry. The fact that the biggest New York publishers are busy building their digital warehouses and retail sites is an indication they concur.

It would be a real shame to see the e-publishing industry become completely swallowed up by New York. And not just because of the money. E-publishing provides a lot of the most innovative and experimental writing out there right now. Because there isn't a lot of overhead involved in e-publishing, the industry can take risks that corporate New York can't afford. Like independent booksellers and small indie presses, independent e-publishers bring interesting and unusual offerings to the reading public.

An independent e-publishing industry would also offer an alternative to the "take-it-or-leave-it" contracting approach by New York.

RWA and EPIC could help writers everywhere by establishing a list of questions writers need to ask e-publishers before signing a contract--questions that are actually geared to the e-publishing industry (instead of being based on print-publishing criteria).

I'll list some of the questions that I'd be asking an e-publisher in tomorrow's post. I'd welcome others volunteering their own hard-learned lesssons either in the comment stream below this post or in an email to me at:


Sandra Ferguson said...

As an e-published author, I advise authors about to sign on the dotted line to beware of the '35%' royalty. Some, I can't speak to all, e-publishers offer deep discounts to on-line selling venues, and authors may be paid their royalty off that 35% discounted price.

What's that mean? If your book sells for $5.00 with your publisher, and they discount it to another seller for say $3.50 total purchase price, then the author will only receive royalty on the $3.50 and NOT the $5.00. Same thing works on the print version. Your print version sells for $15.00, it's a POD -- PRINT ON DEMAND -- which means it's not produced until an order comes in. Let's say X, Y, Z bookseller wants to order 20 copies of your blood, sweat, and tears, you, dear author would think that you'll be paid your negotiated royalty on the $15.00, right?

Think again.

Check your contract. If your publisher is authorizing X, Y, Z bookseller to buy at the POD seller's price -- this is an established amount, what you as an author can buy your books for -- that reduced price is what your royalty will be paid on. So don't expect royalties off the $15.00; you won't see it. You'll be paid royalties off the discounted price and the bookseller will make the profits from your book. Should we all expect booksellers to make a profit? You betcha. How else would they stay in business. However, many POD prices will be 1/2 of the retail price. That means for absolutely no risk -- it's not produced until the bookseller has an order, which means they have a prepaid sale -- the bookseller makes quite a nice revenue.

Thinking of a book-signing?

Order your own copies. Set up your own book-signing, away from a book-seller and keep the profit of your work for yourself.

Bottom line: read your contract, think about what you are giving away, then read it again, before you ever sign.

Slow-down before you sign. Be smart. Be savvy. Take your time before you sign.

rajF9 said...

New Media Publishing

Times are changing. Readers now behave differently than ever. They read different things and in different new ways. And now, they no longer want simply to read – they want to write too. They want to be publishers of their own thoughts and own ideas. Each one of these wannabe individual Publishers (somewhere deep in their heart) want to be bigger than the New York Times (and probably Wall Street Journal put together).
There is no debate. Print publishing is under fire. Dramatic changes in reading habits have hit print readership badly. This has pushed print circulation and ad revenues down. Increasing competition from new media channels for eyeballs and the ad budgets have made life difficult for the circulation and ad sales departments in the publisher’s office. Increasing production and distribution costs have further squeezed the margins in print.
This is no epitaph. It’s a simple idea for print Publishers. Stop thinking in terms of ‘print’. Print is simply a tool. A tool that has worked wonderfully for over past 400 years. It has given us our familiar ‘front-page’ that we have grown up having breakfast with or the ‘page 3’ that we have spent several leisurely moments with. A tool that has taught many things to the online news portals. A tool that will continue to play its role for the next several years. But, this tool WILL eventually phase out as it gives way to new tools that are more interactive, rich and ‘now’. There is no competition between these different tools. And, one must not make the mistake of thinking so. Unfortunately, the inertia with which Newspapers and Magazines have pushed change within their organizations is a proof that this mistake has been made for last several years now.
Just like an investment portfolio, one should never marry a stock. One’s exposure to a stock should be proportional to the returns one expects from it. If new stocks provide the same or more returns, one should make ‘changes’ in the portfolio. Just because one doesn’t understand a new business is no reason to get territorial about existing business. After all, change is the single-most consistent factor in business and how you adapt to change the single-biggest determiner of success.
Publishers are in the business of providing information to subscribers and a marketplace to advertisers. Media is all about that.
In today’s media, mobile is hot. Social networking is booming. And users are addicted to rich media. And, not for no reason. All these are interactive, rich and ‘now’.
New media channels have changed the rules of the media game forever. What took a newspaper or magazine decades to build is being done by new media companies in a matter of months and years. Adoption of new media by publishers is no longer “whether” but “when” and “how best”.
A newspaper today can be printed in Paris but delivered in Tokyo – that same very moment. Publishers can sell more copies, without ever printing them. A newspaper can be published in print, web, mobile and iPods – in the same go. Companies like Pressmart help print Publishers in distributing their content on multiple delivery channels including web, mobile, RSS, podcast, social media and search engines over a seamless 360-degree full-service platform.
Times are changing. Newspapers have a brilliant new court to play in. They need to remember to show up.