The publishing of ebooks has upended and overturned the traditional model of commercial publishing. The traditional author worked through an agent, one who negotiated each book individually with publishing houses to determine the market value of a book. The author’s rights to print, web, and film could be negotiated separately. If the deal didn’t go through, the agent could shop the book around to other publishers.
The ebook market is far less flexible for the author. Because the producers of these devices control the publishing platform, they get to set the terms. At Amazon and Apple, the terms are set: a 70/30 split. The difference comes in book pricing. Apple will sell every book on its iPad for $9.99, an arbitrary price point the author cannot control. Amazon is willing to offer ebooks at a significantly lower price. Although the 70/30 split is a higher percentage than the author could get from a traditional publisher, these low ebook prices will net far less for the author than the proceeds from a trade paperback.
Recently, Barnes and Noble announced the creation of PubIt!, their new ebook publishing division. Whether they can offer more attractive terms for authors remains to be seen.
The stakes are higher than ever before. This isn’t just an issue of the author’s contract, whether he makes a few cents more or less per book. Because there are just a few giants in the ebook business, Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t just sell the reading devices, they also control the distribution of ebooks. You can’t choose to shop at an independent bookstore down the street if you don’t like what they’re offering.