image911[1] Charlie Stross has posted to his blog about the mysterious absence of one of his Merchant Princes series—not the first book or most recent one, but a middle book in the series—as an e-book.

The problem, Stross explains, is that the missing book, The Merchant Wars, fell between two periods of Tor e-book activity. The first few volumes were issued during the ill-fated Tor Webscriptions experiment, which Tor’s parent company shut down after just a couple of days. The later volumes were issued after Tor started up again with e-books in 2008.

But The Merchant Wars was published in 2007, along with hundreds of other titles that fell during the several year gap. And there are just so many of them, making up such a huge backlog, that this particular book (not to mention all of the others) is unlikely to be scanned to e-book form at an acceptable level of quality (that is, without the infamous “Kindle typos”) any time soon.

My back-of-the-envelope estimate is that for Tor to put their backlist online would take on the order of 2000 employee-months of labour. Which is a tall order for a company with 50 full-time staff, to serve a channel that accounts for at best 6% of sales

Stross writes that he has made his feelings known on the matter of having the middle book from a series unavailable in e-book form, but there’s not much that he or his agent can really do. He adds, “If in the meantime you want to download a dodgy scan of that particular book (and buy a mass market paperback for the conscience money), I personally won’t hold it against you.”

Stross says that Tor would like to get all of its digital backlist available in e-book form, but even in this day and age when book publication is moving closer to digital from start to finish, getting that digital information into e-book format can continue to be a problem.

According to Stross’s post, there seems to be a “Tower of E-Babel” problem on the publishing side as well as the e-book side: the move from Quark Publishing System to Adobe InDesign has made it harder to convert older books, which are still in Quark format, to e-books. And a lot of backlist titles’ contracts don’t mention e-books, so those have to be negotiated separately (though this affects Tor’s pre-2001 titles, not mid-‘00s titles like The Merchant Wars).

It’s a bit ironic, but it seems that the volunteer effort of pirate scanners, who scan and proof paper books into e-format as a labor of love (or at least of ego), is doing a lot better job making these older paper books available as e-books (albeit illicit ones) than the publishers who in at least some cases have access to the original electronic source documents.

It’s too bad there isn’t some way to harness that effort to make these books available legitimately.


  1. Word is, Jerry Pournelle is getting his full backist out in ebook form. First thing he did was download a full set of pirate scans.

    Of course, Pournelle understands he’s living in the 21st century…

    If Mr Stross and his agent *really* cared, they could track down his backlist in simiar form and forward it to Tor. It might take a whole half hour…

  2. I’d be happy if they just started releasing what they do have for australian audiences. its bloody stupid that the largest sci-fi fantasy label doesnt release e-books to australians.

  3. I am sure some here have a much better knowledge of writer’s contracts with publishers but as a business executive I have to say that I find it astonishing that contracts to publish do not seem to have a mandated obligation to publish or revert ? Maybe this guys contract was very old ?
    Writers and the writer’s guild need to show some forward thinking on this.

  4. Felix Torres, it isn’t the text that is the issue, it’s the e-book specific formatting. You can get a readable file by automating the conversion process, but it is near-certain to look unprofessional. Charlie responds to comments like yours on the post.

  5. TOR should just let each author do the ebook conversion themselves and turn it into TOR. Those not interested enough to put out the effort can do without

  6. @Errolwi: you do realize that pirate files (especially of older books) are proofread multiple times and manually formated to match the print edition? We’re not talking google crapscrans here; pirates have higher standards than that. 😉

    Check around here for a couple links to articles detailing why and how the pirates process their output.

  7. So as late as 2007, and probably even now, books aren’t being sent to the typesetter as an electronic file? Pardon my utter ignorance of such things, but. Why. The h3!!. Not.

  8. Howard: publishing contracts typically are like recording contracts: we’ll give you $x,000 for your work. Financially, it doesn’t really matter to the author if the book is ever printed or not, or how long it stays in print. Technically, there’s a percentage royalty that is applied against the “advance” and which would kick in after the advance earns out, but very few books ever earn out their advances, and the publisher certainly has incentive to keep those titles in print. Anyway, in almost all cases, the contract is effectively a fixed payment for all publishing rights.

    Except for the Big Names, an author was (and still is) extremely lucky to get *any* publishing contract at all. Consequently, the author wasn’t (and isn’t) usually in a position to negotiate unusual terms. They’re happy just to get the check, to see their name in print, and to be rid of that book so they can work on the next.

    Some publishing contracts do provide for reversion of rights after some number of years of being out of print. There’s also a provision in the US copyright law that allows publishing contracts to be canceled by the author (or the author’s heirs) during the five year window between 25 and 30 years after it was signed, provided that it was signed by the author (not the author’s heirs) no earlier than 1978. This will start to have some effects in a few years (1978+25=2013).

  9. Thank you for that Doug. I understand why this was the standard in the ol’ days. It also supports the fact that writers have almost always signed pretty much whatever is put in front of them because they have been so happy to get published.
    I would hope that this is now changing ? That the writer’s guild/union etc are recommending a more proactive and involved role for writers ?
    As has been documented many times on Teleread the relationship between the writer and reader has been shown to be, now and even more so in the future, crucial.
    Recently we have had a spate of writers whinging about their earnings and contracts and royalties.
    But if they want to really achieve anything then they need to abandon the door mat desperation and start demanding some commons sense and very reasonable business terms in their contracts. I don’t believe these will make or break contracts, especially when the opportunity and potential for this new kind of self publication is becoming a real alternative.

  10. Howard, most authors still passionately desire to be published on paper by one of the ‘Big 6’ publishing houses. I’m not convinced that’s logical any more, but it’s the case. They crave the validation that having their work selected for publication by “a real publisher” brings, and they desperately want to see their book on the shelves at the bookstores. The money is almost secondary, but getting the royalty advance is an inducement, too.

    Only the Big Name authors have any clout; they can take their work elsewhere — and Janet Evanovich is doing just that. But for everybody else, getting any publishing contract at all from “a real publisher” is hitting the jackpot. Most of the major trade publishers sign only a handful of *new* authors each year; the other books they publish are additional books from authors who’re already signed.

    As with all negotiations, the key to getting what you want is being prepared to walk away. And in the main, unsigned authors aren’t prepared to remain unsigned.

  11. Doug, tks again. You reinforce what I have often suspected but not completely sure about, from their behaviour. Yet so many such authors whine and whine and whine about their royalties and not being able to make a living and pirates and all the rest. In life we cannot have it all. In all aspects of life if we are desperate to have something and transparently so, then we can hardly be surprised when we become door mats. It’s no use whining afterwards about it all be unfair.
    We will see, I guess, what happens over the coming couple of years and whether this fatal attraction for the big 6 will continue in as pure a form as before – or whether more writers will explore the new market options.

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