Monday, December 5, 2011

Ebook quandary for publishing

A newly formed literary agency, Hannigan Salky Getzler, had a very nice reception here in Washington to mark their launch. The three young agents -- Carrie Hannigan, Jesseca Salky and Joshua Getzler -- worked together at Russell & Volkening. They parted ways, amicably, with this old line agency because, as they put it, they want to find new ways to help authors in an industry experiencing a seismic shift.

It is probably very tough for agents these days, given how skittish and narrow the mainstream publishers have become. The role played by good agents -- identifying and grooming new authors, placing them with just the right editor, and following their career through successive books -- has become much more challenging in an industry dominated by bottom-line thinking and copycat bestsellers.

Having lunch today with authors who are recently published with mainstream publishers reminded me that they have a hard road to hoe, as well. One of them actually just had his book named as a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year, but he still bemoans the fact that his books get no placement in the bookstores. Another is trying to navigate the treacherous shoals of negotiating a new book contract with very little leverage.

One quandary that emerged clearly from discussions at the reception and at lunch is the ebook. What should be the price of an ebook? Publishers want to set it at $15, a challenge in the era of the 99-cent indie Kindle. But the writer with the $15 retail price still only gets $2.25, about the same as I get with my $2.99 price. Amazon's 30% is much bigger and the publisher gets a big, big slice for doing...nothing. No printing and warehousing, no marketing or sales. Ebooks are simply a pricey ancillary to publishing a print version.

Except that now publishers are offering an ebook only option. This may come with a small advance, but they want to charge the full publisher retail price even when they are not spending money on a print version.

This is not fair and can't last but it is part of the turmoil that agents and authors who work with the legacy publishing houses must deal with. One alternative that is becoming more popular is for agencies to function as quasi-publishers and manage the independent ebook publication for their authors.

 Let's see what happens when a couple of million more Kindles are sold this holiday season.

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