Recently, my publisher and agent have been looking into licensing the rights to publish my books for Amazon's Kindle. Several writer friends now have Kindles and have carried on enthusiastically about them. I'm not so sure.
One writer friend is currently reading a new book on a Kindle. The book was bought for less than the price of the hardback, or a trade paperback and there is every chance that the author received a much lower royalty on that sale than he would have on a traditional book sale. (And, if his contract is anything like mine, he probably only got half of the royalty (minus his agent's 15% of course), while the book's traditional publisher got the other half.) Good for my friend who saved money on the book and loves the Kindle. Good for Amazon who made most of the money. Good for the publisher who got half the royalty at virtually no cost to itself. Not so good for the author.
I've got some questions:
• What are the royalties on Kindle sales? How often are statements issued? How often are they paid?
• Is there any sort of advance payment?
• Is Amazon’s right to publish for the Kindle, exclusive? Is there a limit, time or otherwise, to that exclusivity? Kindle is a proprietary technology, so if they get exclusive rights to a book, it is very much as if we licensed the right to sell a book only to Barnes & Noble and not to Borders or any other bookstores. That seems like a bad idea. At the moment there isn’t much competition for Kindle – although Sony makes an e-book reader – but in the future there will be.
• If we, or our agent, upload the book ourselves (in essence, make the sale ourselves), how is that affected by the existing contract with our traditional publisher – the one that says they get 50% of e-book sale proceeds - but, presumably only if they make that sale, because the contract only gives them “non-exclusive” rights to license subsidiary rights.
• On the other hand, if we (my agent and I) are uploading the version of my books that my traditional publisher worked on – editing, formatting, cover art, etc. – then they probably are entitled to some percentage, even if they didn’t make the “sale.” But, probably it should be less than 50% since they aren’t having to produce and distribute an actual book, and we’re doing the work to upload the book, or the manuscript or whatever. If that is the case, what percent are they entitled to?
A lot of these issues are similar to those that led the screenwriters to go on strike last year. But, we book authors don't have the same sort of clout - very few of us have networks, advertisers and viewers dependent on our output.
At the moment, sales of e-books for the Kindle - and for Sony's reader - are pretty small. But they're growing. And as the technology improves, as more reading machines come on the market, as more books are available at lower prices, that market is going to grow - fast. And unless writers' contracts reflect these technological and market changes, writers are going to be on the losing end.
My standing instructions to the lawyer who reviews my contracts are: "As a writer, I realize that I'm going to get screwed. Just make sure that they use enough lube." The Kindle is going to require an additional application of grease to my contracts before I’m happy with it.