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Sunday, 8 August 2010



Huddled in their small and grimy garrets, authors are supposed to write for love not profit. With the exception of a handful of writers who can command six or even seven-figure advances for their work, most count their annual earnings in hundreds rather than thousands of pounds.
But the increasing popularity of the ebook and, more important, the potential for extracting larger royalties from publishers, has spurred the financial ambitions of authors.
And with 'super agent' Andrew 'the Jackal' Wylie thumbing his nose at the traditional publishing world by signing a deal to sell his roster of 700 writers direct to a digital publisher, authors in Britain are beginning to flex their muscles.
Mark Le Fanu, general secretary of the Society of Authors, said: 'We think revenues should be split at least 50:50 between the publishers and the authors.'

That would be double the present top royalty rate. And whereas book deals currently cover the lifetime of the author plus 70 years, Le Fanu says the pace of change in digital publishing means that ebook royalties could be renegotiated every few years.

Such a radical shake-up in the balance of power between authors and publishers is not, however, the way the book giants see things going.

Marjorie Scardino, chief executive of Pearson, which owns Penguin, may detest the 'swooshy' sound you get when you turn the pages on an ebook  -  'it's just bloody annoying'  -  but she is relaxed about what kind of platforms her publishing house sells books on. 'I like all of them,' she said, (minus the swoosh of course).

For the past few years, Pearson, like others, has been renegotiating all contracts with its authors to include digital rights.

Scardino argues, however, that as publishers save only the cost of printing and distributing traditional books  -  which she says is ten per cent of the retail price  -  there is not a great deal of wiggle room on the question of royalties. As if the issue wasn't fraught enough, last month's launch of Odyssey Editions by Wylie to publish ebook editions of authors including John Updike, Saul Bellow and Martin Amis and sell them exclusively through Amazon's Kindle store has torn apart the usually tranquil world of words.

The publishers blew a collective gasket. Random House fired off letters to Amazon and Wylie, disputing Amazon's legal right to sell the titles, which include Nabokov's Lolita and the Rabbit series from Updike, and said it would not enter into new agreements with the Wylie Agency 'until this situation is resolved'. The problem is that it is still not entirely clear who owns the rights to digital versions of books published before the rise of digital publishing.

Some publishers are arguing that as they own the right to publish the books, this should be on any platform, but authors and agents are instead saying that digital rights, if not specifically covered under a contract, remain with the author.

Penguin chief executive John Makinson wrote last week: 'The roof is not falling in on us book publishers just yet.' However he did say he was concerned that Odyssey was 'the thin end of a large literary wedge'.

The ebook sector's phenomenal growth is being aided by new electronic book readers such as Kindle and Apple's iPad. Last year, ebook sales in Britain hit £150 million, doubling year on year. However, it is still a small section of the overall market  -  publishing is Britain's largest creative industry and is worth more than £5 billion a year.

But in America, Amazon now sells 180 ebooks for every 100 hardbacks, with sales set to overtake paperbacks within a year. Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, has just posthumously become the first author to sell more than a million books on Kindle.

Last week, Amazon launched its first dedicated Kindle store outside America and with the arrival of the Kindle 2, which is cheaper, lighter and with more battery life, digital sales are set to rise even further. Kindle's boast is that you can think of a book that you'd like to read and 60 seconds later you can be reading it. But the Publishers' Association said: 'It will be a long time before book publishers disappear, if indeed they ever do, and there is certainly nothing at the moment to suggest the death of traditional publishing.

'Ebooks engage different audiences, so maybe we will start to see teenagers, who may not have been keen book readers, read them on their Nintendo DS for example.'

Steve Kessel, senior vice-president for Kindle, believes that ebooks will change the books themselves. 'While today we are seeing existing books being converted to digital format, there is also a rise in formats that have traditionally been uneconomical for the publishing industry, such as novellas and short stories.'

He is under no illusions as to where all this will end and says: 'Over the long term I think digital will replace traditional publishing.'

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