E-book royalties: A writer’s dilemma

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Starting this week and continuing into 2012, virtually all Michael Chabon novels, stories and other writings will become available as e-books, news the author accepts with pleasure and resignation.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Mr. Chabon has been a published author since 1988, long enough to land on both sides of the legal and financial digital divide.

Mr. Chabon controls electronic rights to early works such as “Wonder Boys” and his acclaimed debut novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” because they came out well before the electronic era and digital editions were not mentioned in his contracts. For those books, Mr. Chabon signed with Open Road Integrated Media, a digital publisher that offers 50 percent royalties. He called the terms “extremely fair and generous.”

E-rights to “Kavalier & Clay,” published in 2000 by Random House, and such recent HarperCollins releases as “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” are owned by the original publishers. For those editions, Mr. Chabon’s royalties will be around 25 percent of the publisher’s net receipts (minus the percentage paid to the seller), the industry standard and comparable to what publishers offer for hardcovers and paperbacks. Countless writers and agents have said the rate for e-books should be raised.

“I agreed to the traditional e-book royalty, which I think is criminally low, because I didn’t really have any legs to stand on. I didn’t want to get left behind in the e-book revolution,” Mr. Chabon said recently.

“When it comes to royalties on a paper book, [the 25 percent rate] is completely fair when you think of the expenses a publisher takes on - the delivery trucks and the factory workers and the distribution chains. But it’s not fair for them to take a roughly identical royalty for an e-book that costs them nothing to produce.”

A spokeswoman for HarperCollins, Tina Andreadis, said the publisher does not “comment on our contracts with our authors.” Jane von Mehren, senior vice president and publisher of trade paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group, declined to comment on Mr. Chabon’s criticism. But she did say in a statement that Random House was “thrilled” to release the e-book and trade paperback of “Kavalier & Clay” in June 2012 and “reach all the potential readers of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece.”

With e-books estimated at 20 percent of overall sales and growing, the fight for new and old releases is intensifying. Amazon.com, which also offers higher electronic royalty rates than traditional publishers, has aggressively expanded its publishing program and signed the best-selling self-help author Timothy Ferriss.

Open Road, co-founded in 2009 by former HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, has acquired e-rights to several popular “backlist” works, including Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” and Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying.”

For traditional publishers, holding on to a classic can be expensive: Simon & Schuster reportedly paid seven figures for e-rights to Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”

Unlike Mr. Bradbury, who has likened e-books to “burned fuel,” the 48-year-old Mr. Chabon has no philosophical objections, only contractual ones. He has a Kindle app and iBook app and said one of his four children is enjoying the e-versions of the “Lady Grace” mystery series. He said he loves paper texts and thinks they will last forever but understands the convenience, and necessity, of buying a book at any time.

“I don’t want someone who just finished ‘Wonder Boys’ and wants to read another one of my books to be unable do so because there’s no bookstore nearby,” he said.

“The technology is a cool technology, the appeal is obvious. As readers, we tend to be more subject, more prey to the need of instant gratification. Readers are greedy. It’s a benign greed, and I think e-books have the potential to satisfy that greed.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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