Thursday, December 17, 2009

The E-Book Wars Have Really Begun, Part 2

Yesterday, in Part 1 of this post, I wrote about a flurry of events that suggest the phony war over digital publishing is over and live ammunition is now flying. First, three big houses tussled with Amazon over “windowing,” or delaying publication of e-books relative to hardcovers. Then, more momentously, Random House attempted to put barbed wire around e-rights to its backlist.

Next, the most aggressive move yet: mega-bestselling author Stephen Covey—who has long published with Simon & Schuster—announced he had made a deal with Amazon to sell Kindle editions of two of his biggest titles via another electronic publisher.  This, of course, is exactly what big publishers have feared and what Random House’s bluster is trying to forestall. To the extent that e-book sales of Covey’s books supplant sales of their print editions, that’s vital backlist revenue disappearing from S&S’s p&l, not to mention potential growth the house is losing out on. Covey will apparently be releasing some of his new titles through Amazon exclusively, so S&S won’t see those dollars either.

What I don’t understand is why Simon didn’t pre-empt this move by issuing their own Kindle edition: they have already released e-books of several other Covey titles so you’d have thought the terms of an arrangement were in place. You’d also have thought S&S would hustle to get the Kindle edition of a backlist leader like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People into the market-especially given that Amazon reports Covey stands 13th on their all-time bestseller list. 

I can only assume there are other issues in play or that some negotiation between S&S and Covey broke down--quite possibly over royalties: the author is apparently receiving more than 50% of the net proceeds from his e-publisher. (Adding piquancy, the e-publisher who’s handling Covey’s Amazon title is RosettaBooks, the same one Random House sued over backlist e-rights in 2001.)

This creates an interesting situation.

Simon & Schuster has not conceded that they don’t control e-book rights to backlist titles; they say it’s “their intention” to publish those books digitally. They probably don’t want to pick a fight with Stephen Covey, one of the biggest authors on their list. He says he is happy with them, and they are surely hoping to publish new Covey titles in the future. But if they let him walk away with e-rights to backlist bestsellers, how do they hold the line with other authors? They may suddenly find the whole backlist vanishing.

And if that happens, it will leave Random House—and the other Big Six publishers--in a very awkward position, trying to cling to electronic rights that one of their biggest competitors has given up. 

In short, it looks to me like the free-for-all we have long been expecting has begun. 

(Illustration from "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Soldiers, Starring Sgt Rock," at Chris's Invincible Super-Blog)