Deal with the Devil – Ebooks and Exclusivity

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about exclusivity when it comes to ebooks. Self-publishing mavens Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, in one of their increasingly long but still interesting chat logs, recently discussed the decision by Eisler to sign his ebook rights exclusively to Amazon; a decision he decided to make almost entirely on the perceived economic benefits. JK Rowling is making her books available exclusively through her own portal, Pottermore, and cutting out all the ebook vendors. And then there’s the post by Ginger Clark, an agent with Curtis Brown US, who wrote in Publishing Perspectives a week or so ago warning authors against global deals, espousing the potential gains authors can make by diversifying their rights around the world, ensuring that their books have publishing people on the ground in each territory they sell to who understand each market.

So who’s right? Is it better to sign a deal with an ebook publisher (or vendor) who can deliver your book to a worldwide market as one unified whole, or are you better off splitting your rights into portions and selling them separately everywhere? Is there any other option? Or is this even a choice open to most writers in a world where selling rights is more difficult than selling books?

Personally, I can see the benefits of Ginger Clark’s argument. If you can get multiple deals around the world, then you get multiple advances and marketing teams based on home turf. The problem with territorial fragmentation of ebooks is that it disadvantages the author until a book sells in a particular territory, particularly those in Australia, which has a relatively small local market. For example, an Australian author with an Australian publishing deal will generally have their ebook rights restricted to sell in Australia only – unless they have publishing deals in other territories. But there’s no reason why an Australian publisher shouldn’t make an Australian author’s ebooks available globally (and non-exclusively) until an exclusive deal has been struck with an overseas publisher.

The received wisdom from agents about this setup is that having an ebook for sale in a territory makes it almost impossible to convince an overseas publisher to buy the rights, but I’m yet to hear any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, of this actually taking place. (Though please do chime in if you have some – I’m intensely curious!).


The UK, Australian and US covers of Unearthly by Cynthia Hand.

Gosh, English-speaking markets really are completely foreign to each other.

It’s in an agent’s interest to chase advances rather than individual ebook sales, and in a publisher’s or ebook retailer’s interest to maximise sales – so it’s difficult to see where the sales pitch ends and the actual sales begin. Nonetheless, I do wonder whether authors are even going to have a choice in a shrinking Australian market. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to get a local publishing deal, and perhaps even more difficult to find an international deal on top of that. Are authors limiting themselves to Australia in the vain hope of securing a big advance overseas just deluding themselves and losing potential sales in the meantime? Or is this just sensible business practice, and I’m being a digital ideologue? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think.

Published by

Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

8 thoughts on “Deal with the Devil – Ebooks and Exclusivity”

  1. Joel as ‘digital ideologue’ Hmm, no, it doesn’t scan well enough, but it IS a delightful phrase! Speaking as one who knows perilously little about all this, I wonder are authors who aim mainly for digital publication using agents? I know that’s an awful sideline, but your article prompted the thought. Will we see (or have we already seen?) the emergence of a new career? My image of the publishing world is that it is still mainly geared to print, although it’s a different story I think in the world of academic journals. That world has developed it’s own fractures and hazards, of course. Not relevant to your question, but like your good self, I’m curious.

  2. Joel as ‘digital ideologue’ Hmm, no, it doesn’t scan well enough, but it IS a delightful phrase! Speaking as one who knows perilously little about all this, I wonder are authors who aim mainly for digital publication using agents? I know that’s an awful sideline, but your article prompted the thought. Will we see (or have we already seen?) the emergence of a new career? My image of the publishing world is that it is still mainly geared to print, although it’s a different story I think in the world of academic journals. That world has developed it’s own fractures and hazards, of course. Not relevant to your question, but like your good self, I’m curious.

  3. hi Joel,
    no doubt you’ve seen the comparative chart at http://ebookfriendly.com/2011/07/14/ebooks-vs-real-books-comparison-of-costrevenue-infographic/ It seems highly unlikely that editing etc can be done for .80 as compared to 1.00 for marketing, but I guess it’s being averaged per book. I realise this belongs with an earlier post but can’t find that one. apologies for putting it here and I will be quite happy if you delete this but I’d be interested to know what your perspective is on this. celia.

    1. Quite interesting. Though I agree with you. I suspect the figures are, to a certain extent, speculative.

  4. hi Joel,
    no doubt you’ve seen the comparative chart at http://ebookfriendly.com/2011/07/14/ebooks-vs-real-books-comparison-of-costrevenue-infographic/ It seems highly unlikely that editing etc can be done for .80 as compared to 1.00 for marketing, but I guess it’s being averaged per book. I realise this belongs with an earlier post but can’t find that one. apologies for putting it here and I will be quite happy if you delete this but I’d be interested to know what your perspective is on this. celia.

    1. Quite interesting. Though I agree with you. I suspect the figures are, to a certain extent, speculative.

Comments are closed.