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.

Ships in the Night: Hocking and Eisler Switch Sides

News has surfaced this week of two surprising defections from rapidly entrenched sides in the Great Publishing Wars of 2011. In the red corner is the reluctant indie/self-publishing darling Amanda Hocking, author of several self-published ebooks and POD (print on demand) dead tree titles. Hocking recently announced she had sold over a hundred thousand copies of her books via Amazon’s Kindle store. In the blue corner is Barry Eisler (Barry who?), author of the John Rain series of thriller novels (published by Penguin) and surprisingly good-looking (in the publishing business we call them ‘promotable’).

So what’s happened, and why should we care? Basically in the past week these two have switched sides. Eisler has turned down a $500,000 advance by his publisher to follow J.A. Konrath down the self-published rabbit hole, and Amanda Hocking, it is rumoured (by Amanda herself), is on the verge of accepting a deal with a traditional publisher.

Quite a bit of blog space has already been filled up with speculation and analysis of this situation by smarter people than me. So for this post I would like to concentrate on how I think this situation might play out long term – or rather, how it might turn out to be representative of how books will get published in the future.

Most publishers wouldn’t argue that discovering amazing writers is one of the hardest parts about publishing. And when I say ‘amazing writers’, I don’t just mean people who can write well. There’s a sort of magic that takes place somewhere between the author, the page (or the screen) and the reader. The best publishers try to pick up on this magic and publish books that people want to read. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? That’s how fortunes are usually made in books – both by the publisher who discovers and develops the talent, and by the author who writes the actual books.

The difficulty with this kind of publishing is that the signal to noise ratio is incredibly low. Lots of people write, and love writing. Very few writers, relatively speaking, are worth reading. When there are very few publishers (indie fanatics, read: gatekeepers), then the bandwidth is going to be terrible. Publishers have tried harnessing technology to solve this dilemma in the past (see: Authonomy et al.) But I’ve spoken about the problems surrounding community-based filtering before.

What the Eisler / Hocking switcheroo has shown us, though, is that self-publishing (at its low end) can provide a low-income microcosm of how traditional book publishing plays out. It’s far more market-driven than traditional publishing. And its cut-throat competitive nature ensures that only the authors who have the magic – and the persistence, hard work and nous – will make headway. In the years to come, the self-publishing arena will, I am sure, be a goldmine for traditional publishers.

And the price publishers will pay for this amazing organic filtering service? The risk of losing their existing authors to the clamoring, messy, dynamic horde of self-published writers. Publishers really will have to compete to hold on to their successful authors, particularly those that are self-starting, driven and ambitious. Some authors (like Eisler), will find that the odds are stacked in their favour. But many authors just want to write, and don’t want to spend their lives administering their own career (like Hocking). And there will be other authors still who are created in the self-publishing bubble and never leave – an option that could not have existed only a few years ago. All of this is great news for readers, authors and publishers. There will be better books, and more of them, they’ll be easier to find and (one hopes) the right books will find the right audience more of the time. In others words, it’s a great time to love books.