Regular readers know that I harp from time to time on the idea of authors retaining their copyrights. I’ve been doing this because there’s no clear metric other than raw dollars by which an author can calculate the value of a publishing deal compared with the value of retaining and exploiting copyright ownership themselves. And raw-dollar comparisons are hard to come by.
Which is why this post from Joe Konrath should be the first thing you read today, and tomorrow, and any day a publisher comes calling:
My five Hyperion ebooks (the sixth one came out in July so no royalties yet) each earn an average of $803 per year on Kindle.
My four self-pubbed Kindle novels each earn an average of $3430 per year.
If I had the rights to all six of my Hyperion books, and sold them on Kindle for $1.99, I’d be making $20,580 per year off of them, total, rather than $4818 a year off of them, total.
So, in other words, because Hyperion has my ebook rights, I’m losing $15,762 per year.
It’s only one example. And this author is profiting indirectly from having had his books published by a publisher — including any editing, design work, previous marketing, etc., which helped attract attention to his name and stories. But he’s also being very clear: controlling his copyrights would be putting more money in his bank account.
Whatever a book deal used to be worth to an author in sales and publicity it seems clear that it’s now worth less, and perhaps a lot less. Authors are doing much of their own marketing, more of their own editing, etc.
In the fast-moving digital hurricane that is pulverizing the traditional publishing industry, locking yourself into any deal may be the biggest disaster, because you give up the only thing you really ever own: your copyright. Maybe the contract you sign will be crystal clear regarding reversion of rights to you, and what your publisher has to do to retain rights to your book, but I’m betting it won’t be. Why? Because that contract will be written by the publisher; because you’ll be flattered and thankful to get any deal; and because publishers know they need copyrights in the bank in order to get through this nightmare, so they’re going to write the contract in a way that allows them to control your work for as long as they can.
I haven’t seen an example of this in print, but I would think there’s going to be a wave of contracts washing up on Author Island which include EULA-like language allowing a publisher to retain or expand a copyright so that it can be exploited in new media, including new media not on the market at the time of the writing and signing of the contract. And if the old trigger for going out of print was zero dusty books in a warehouse, what’s the new trigger going to be when one magnetic image on a hard drive is the equivalent of being in print?
As a writer you have no way of knowing now which standards or platforms or e-publishers or publishers to embrace. You don’t know who’s going to be in business in a year, who’s going to get bought out — meaning your copyrights may be sold to someone you didn’t intend to get in bed with — and you don’t know what the most profitable revenue streams will be.
This is a crazy time. Being a professional writer today means being everything: marketing department, publisher, agent, designer, editor, valet, therapist. But there may be no more important job than being your own business manager, and that starts with understanding the numbers.
If you don’t control your copyrights, you don’t control your numbers.
— Mark Barrett