Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The E-Book Wars Have Really Begun

It seems quite likely that we will look back on this week as the moment when the e-book wars officially began. We may have forgotten it, but electronic books of one kind or another have been with us for a couple of decades (beginning with ill-fated ventures into books on CD).  For most of that time, the actual market was negligibly small. In the last few years the e-book market became significant, but although it generated vast amounts of chatter—ranging from dark mutterings by publishers to utopian visions from technophiles—a sort of uneasy calm prevailed at the frontier where authors and agents, publishers, and Amazon and its competitors eyed each other warily.  There were occasional skirmishes and plenty of saber-rattling (over matters such as Kindle prices or Digital Rights Management) but no party seemed ready to make a move aggressive enough to start a real fight.

But that has now changed—inevitably, because the e-book market has exploded and digital books are the hottest (perhaps the only) growth area in the industry. The calm is over, and real punches are being thrown. You might say the first jab came from three houses (Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and HarperCollins) who announced they were going to delay releasing e-books of their titles until several months after hardcover publication. I agree with the analysis of Mike Shatzkin that these houses are not so much concerned over pub dates as trying to find some leverage to use with Amazon over the pricing issue. 

But the timing kerfuffle was minor compared to the dustup that broke out on Friday when Random House CEO Markus Dohle declared, with chutzpah one can only admire, that the house controls e-book rights for thousands of backlist titles whose contracts made no mention of such rights. This was drawing a line far out in the sand.  Dohle’s bold assertion is, essentially, that e-books are just another kind of “book,” so the contractual language that gives Random exclusivity over all editions of a work includes e-books—even though they had not been invented at the time most of these contracts were signed. 

It’s hard to believe Random can make this claim with a straight face. They went to court with this argument years ago and didn’t get very far. But you can see why they’re trying it on. At stake is potentially millions of dollars in backlist revenue that the house could lose out on if authors take e-rights of their old titles elsewhere.  Even though Random’s argument may be legally weak, by making a show of defending this territory they are presumably hoping to discourage authors from battling them for it. Agent Richard Curtis, who is himself a an e-publisher, observes at his blog, "Someone would have to have a lot at stake to be willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to go up against Random House in court.”

Random may be betting that for individual authors, it won’t be worth the fight. But now that we are seeing explosive growth in e-book revenues, I believe there’s too much money at stake for authors not to contest this ground. The Authors Guild has already blasted back at Dohle, calling Random’s position on the backlist a “retroactive rights grab.”

The Guild also points out that Random House rewrote its contract boilerplate in 1994 and specifically added language to cover e-book rights, which wouldn’t seem to be necessary if they were already bundled in with the rights acquired. I worked at Random House at the time, and well remember sitting in meetings where we discussed the new contract language. I certainly don’t remember anyone saying, “well, we already have these rights, but let’s throw in some extra language about them just to make sure.” The conversations I recall were much more like, “Hm, our old contract language didn’t say anything about electronic books so we’d better make sure we get them from now on.”

In the end, just as the fight with Amazon over pub dates is largely about pricing, the fight over who owns backlist e-rights is largely about royalties. After all, Random House is a hugely potent marketer of books and content; to an author, it’s not clear there’s any company out there that’s going to do better selling your backlist title, and there’s clearly an advantage to marketing print and e-editions together. But Random is paying an e-book royalty of 25% of net receipts, while others offer a 50-50 split or better. That’s a lot to leave on the table.

And that brings us to the second roundhouse blow landed this week. I’ll talk about that in tomorrow’s post. 

(illustration: The Taking of Lone Pine  by Fred Leist)