Saturday, March 20, 2010

Status Quo Vadis?

Or, in English: Where are the old ways going?

I've spent a few weeks helping my friend, Robert Walker, format and upload his books to Kindle.

Incredibly, Rob has forty novels that are out of print. These aren't self-pubbed novels, or small press novels. These are books that were with big houses, which had big print runs and distribution. Some of these books go for big money on the used book circuit.

By the end of this month, thirty of Rob's books will be available on the Kindle, for $1.99 each. I predict he'll do quite well with them. After all, he managed to sell millions of copies when they were in print.

Which begs two questions.

1. Why did they ever go out of print in the first place?

2. Why am I, his friend, uploading these books to Kindle, rather than a publisher?

Part one is pretty easy to answer. More than 95% of everything ever published has gone out of print. Times change. Publishers fold. Bookstores need to move X number of copies per quarter in order to keep books on the shelf, and distributors charge rent for books just sitting there. So if a book isn't paying for itself in real estate, it goes out of print.

But Out-Of-Print does not equal Worthless. There is still money to be made on old books. That's why there's a billion dollar used book industry.

However, used books still involves storing, shelving, and shipping paper. It's the same industry, just at a discounted cut for all involved (and zero cut for the author.)

Which brings us to the second question. Why isn't anyone mining this rich vein?

Previous attempts to grab the out-of-print gold have met with disaster. Google is still in court over its Search Inside the Book program. Amazon first allowed all public domain books to be uploaded to Kindle, then did an about-face on the practice. Big publishers have tried to retroactively grab ebook rights, and are now attempting to add clauses to old contracts, offering a paltry 25% royalty rate.

But I don't see any well-funded, large, coordinated effort to scoop up the rights to out of print material and make it available again. Everyone is so worried about the erights of present and future books (and erroneously pricing those erights at more than consumers want to pay) but no one is taking a used bookseller/antique dealer/eBay stance on all of this material that's just ready to be exploited.

Smart authors are doing it themselves. Among my peers, I've seen Raymond Benson, Lee Goldberg, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Scott Nicholson, F. Paul Wilson, and several others make their older books available on Kindle. But these are a small fraction of the writers I know with out of print work.

What's the hold up?

I think it's a combination of things.

1. Writers are used to the publishing end of things being done for them.

2. Writers are scared if they publish their own ebooks, no one will want to republish them in print (even though that rarely happens these days.)

3. Writers don't believe they can actually make money off of the stuff that's "failed."

My advice to writers: Wake the hell up.

Ebooks are not only here to stay, they're only going to grow in popularity. And an ebook is forever. Your $50 a month now may be $10,000 a year in 2016. You have to an opportunity to make money for eternity on these rights, and eternity is a long time.

But the opportunity won't last forever. Because someone is going to get wise, look at your backlist, and see dollar signs. They're going bribe you to get a piece of eternity, for doing nothing more than providing a cover and an uploading service.

I urge all writers to look at their backlist, and figure out how they can turn those dead tree books into ebooks. This should become a required skill for writers, like understanding narrative structure, or how to write a query letter.

If you're techno-stupid, shop around for a reasonable one-time fee to get your ebooks up and running. If you sign a contract with a e-publisher, make sure the lion's share of the profits are going to you, you have control over the list price, and the contract lasts for a finite amount of time.

Eternity is a long time to share royalties on books that you wrote.

Remember that. Before someone figures out how to screw you out of it. And I'm sure that will happen, very soon. Companies with deep pockets will offer to get your books on Kindle, and the fine print will screw you.

If I were an unscrupulous publisher with a big budget, that's where I'd be putting my money. I'd be approaching name authors with long backlists who don't know any better, offering them pennies on the dollar for what their life's work is worth.

The best defense against this is twofold: education, and hard work.

If you have out of print books, get them on Kindle yourself. If you need help, pay a flat fee for it.

If you do sign a publishing contract for your ebooks, make damn sure it is highly in your favor, and it has an expiration date.

For the first time in the history of publishing, writers have the upper hand.

Don't piss that advantage away by thinking that this is still 1995.