Tag Archives: e-books

E-Book Royalty Math: The House Always Wins

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To mark the one-year anniversary of the Great Blackout, Amazon’s weeklong shut down of e-commerce for nearly all of Macmillan’s titles, we’re sending out a series of alerts this week and next on the state of e-books, authorship, and publishing. The first installment (“How Apple Saved Barnes & Noble. Probably.”) discussed the outcome, one year later, of that battle. Today, we look at the e-royalty debate, which has been simmering for a while, but is likely to soon heat up as the e-book market grows.

E-book royalty rates for major trade publishers have coalesced, for the moment, at 25% of the publisher’s receipts. As we’ve pointed out previously, this is contrary to longstanding tradition in trade book publishing, in which authors and publishers effectively split the net proceeds of book sales (that’s how the industry arrived at the standard hardcover royalty rate of 15% of list price). Among the ills of this radical pay cut is the distorting effect it has on publishers’ incentives: publishers generally do significantly better on e-book sales than they do on hardcover sales. Authors, on the other hand, always do worse.

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How Apple Saved Barnes & Noble. Probably.

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Happy blackout anniversary! Where were you when the lights went out? We’re sending out a series of alerts this week and next that look at the state of e-books, authorship and publishing to mark the one-year anniversary of the Great Blackout, when Amazon attempted to protect its near complete dominance of the rapidly growing e-book market through a stunning, punitive act against a publisher that dared to challenge its terms. (To see our account of this showdown as it happened — posted last Groundhog Day — go to “The Right Battle at the Right Time.”)

It was one year ago last Saturday that Amazon turned out the lights on nearly all of Macmillan’s books, removing the “buy buttons” from the print and electronic editions of thousands of titles. Macmillan authors, many of whom had linked their websites to Amazon pages that were suddenly disabled and useless, found themselves cut off from readers who frequented the dominant online bookstore.

Amazon’s stunning move was a preemptive strike, an attempt to keep Macmillan from going through with its plan to shift to an “agency model” for selling e-books. Macmillan, which immediately saw its online sales plummet, stood firm and prevailed: Amazon ended the blackout after a week.

The story of the blackout and its aftermath reveals much about the high-stakes device and format war that’s reshaping the publishing industry. Last year’s Amazon-Macmillan showdown was a critical battle in that war.

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