By Holly Kinsella author of Just The Way You Are.
I have read a few articles and spoken to a couple of people in the book trade over the past week in relation to the ongoing dispute between Hachette (and Authors United) and Amazon. Most people who you will speak to, particularly inside the industry, will be squarely behind the authors. Some might argue however that, as much as they would like Amazon to meet all the demands of the major publishers and authors, David won't defeat Goliath in this instance.
My take on things is that authors have picked the wrong fight. Part of the dispute revolves around margins - and how much the publisher receives as opposed to Amazon from each ebook sale. The campaign that Authors United should be conducting is for a greater share of royalties for writers from their publishers from each book sale. At present the standard contract (which the major publishers are loath to alter at present, for obvious reasons) dictates that authors receive 25% of net revenues from book sales. This can translate to just 15% of revenues derived from the cover price of a book (I should state here that in terms of physical books most royalties are calculated from gross revenues). Put simply, as much as you might think Amazon want to squeeze Hachette over margins, publishers have been squeezing authors over ebook royalties for years. Hachette's costs are low and their profits are high on ebooks - and the people losing out in the equation are the authors.
The question is, could the David of Authors United take on the Goliath of Hachette and other major publishers? The answer is yes. Firstly, several big name authors could negotiate contracts to help foster a different royalty culture throughout the industry. They should demand a higher royalty and/or get paid on gross rather than net revenues. If big names are keen to fight for mid-list authors, as they seem to be, then this would help them as much as any advert in the New York Times. The cartel-like fix of setting a low royalty must be opened up more to competition. In the spirit of fairness that Authors United are keen to tap into a 25% net royalty just isn't good enough - especially when Amazon of all people will pay out 70% of cover price should writers publish direct with them. Ironically Amazon has been pro author in light of the royalty split between publisher and writer and is keen for the latter to earn more.
Secondly, agents need to work together on a more united front to raise the royalty of what their authors are getting paid. If publishers lean on any agents and threaten not to sign any new books with them should they complain about the low royalty rate then they should stand as Agents United, rather than capitulate for a short term advantage. Rather than conducting a PR campaign on behalf of the major publishers, the more beneficial PR campaign to consider would be one which is directed against them.
Amazon are not beyond criticism in their handling of this recent dispute. They are a powerful company - and have used their influence in ways which has rightly lost them sympathy. But, although they are not beyond criticism, Amazon shouldn't be wholly demonised. They are a great engine for selling books, providing choice and making reading accessible and enjoyable. It should be noted how many indie authors (a constituency of people that the publishing industry should listen to more) have come out in support of Amazon in the past few weeks. Authors United do not speak for everyone it seems.
It is important that authors do not become obsessed with their campaign against Amazon, at the expense of ignoring the more fundamental issue of low ebook royalties. If they do then it will be the major publishers who will be laughing - all the way to the bank.
Holly Kinsella is the author of three romantic novellas which have been collected together in her ebook My Life, published by Endeavour Press.