Moderators’s note: This is the first TeleBlog post from Richard Herley, author of The Penal Colony and other books, including the award-winning Stone Arrow—all available as shareware downloads. – D.R.

image Last week I tried to explain to my literary agent, a confirmed technophobe, that her future is made not only rosy by the rise of e-publishing, but assured.

In the current business model, the hardback publisher holds all the aces. He is constantly sent proposals, filtered at no cost to him by agents. After much consultation inside the firm and much external observation of what he perceives as the market, he still considers carefully whether to invest in a title. I am not talking about the books of star writers here, but those of the ranks of lesser names from which future stars will emerge. Nor, because the technology is still primitive, am I talking about illustrated books or those requiring complex typography. Until e-book displays improve, the thrust of this piece will apply mostly to fiction.

Paperback bonanzas possible for hardback houses, right now

At one time, when more money was spent on books by public libraries, the hardback publisher’s risk was small. In 1980 one even uttered the phrase “library fodder” in my hearing. Today the risk is greater. Now, as then, it is offset by the promise of future gain. A hardback publisher’s standard contract will require a percentage of the earnings from subsidiary rights—50 percent in the case of paperback rights—to be paid to him. Thus, even if the hardback edition doesn’t sell out, its publisher stands a chance of profit: perhaps considerable profit, should the book find mass-market success. If it gets optioned by DreamWorks, our publisher’s ten-percent cut of the movie rights might make him send out for champagne.

Now the agent charges commission on the sums paid to the author. Thus commission on a sale of subsidiary rights must be shared with the hardback house, even if the agent has done all the legwork.

Let me digress a little. The reason that hardback houses hold such sway in the publishing world is that they largely control—or did control—the entry to the market. Of course, they also promote the books they publish, but, as any publisher will privately admit, even a big promotion budget is wasted on a third-rate book. Books succeed only if readers like them. Once readers know of its existence, a book is promoted principally by word of mouth.

Vanishing bonanzas for hardback houses, after E catches on?

Reading between the lines, I perceive that the big publishing houses are terrified of e-reading. It strips them of power and, as far as market-entry goes, renders them irrelevant. Paper publishing will be subservient to electronic publishing. Only e-titles which are popular will merit a paper impression, or sell to Hollywood, and 100 percent of the rights fees will be remitted to the author’s agent.

The agent will deserve his or her increased fees, because it will be the agent who does all the work of selling the subsidiary rights. In turn the agent will owe complete loyalty to the author, rather than be torn by the need to keep in with publishers.

Deliberately trying to kill e-books?

Observing some of the kludgy ventures into e-reading by the big publishing houses—particularly their pricing policies and their suicidal adoption of DRM—I sometimes wonder whether they are deliberately trying to kill the e-book. If so, they are misguided.

To create his own “publishing house”, an author needs no more than a clean digital copy of his book, a computer, a blog, and the URL of Feedbooks. He can then release his baby into the wild and do a little online promotion to get things going. If it is any good, word-of-mouth will do the rest. He can ask for payment from his readers or just sit back and wait for the publishing world to come to him.

That’s why literary agents should be glad, arms-wide-open glad, about e-reading. I’m not too strong on arithmetic, but even I know that 15 percent of everything is more than 15 percent of part of it.

Further thoughts from moderator: Big thanks for your provocative and gutsy post, Richard! I invite comments from readers, especially any people at hardback houses who might care to come forward. I myself think publishers will do fine in the E era if they and partners add value—in the form of good editing, marketing and ubiquitous and reliable distribution, able to handle sudden spikes in demand. – D.R.


  1. Richard:
    “Deliberately trying to kill e-books?

    “Observing some of the kludgy ventures into e-reading by the big publishing houses—particularly their pricing policies and their suicidal adoption of DRM—I sometimes wonder whether they are deliberately trying to kill the e-book. If so, they are misguided.”

    Coach builders as opposed to Model T ford production lines. Rolls-Royce played it smart, many other coach-building car producers did not.

    A hint; the smarter hardback publishers will be the ones that make quality un-DRMed ebooks and produce prestige paper versions – those that specialize in the highest quality writings will do best of all.

    Such a model would release a lot of ebooks, the sales of which will point to the better works that warrant the trees and craftsmanship of a bound edition.

    The real loser is the paper-back, not the hard bound volume.

    Ebook technology is in its early days still, the above is no recipe for immediate success. But in a decade’s time only a few hard back publishers will be like Rolls-Royce, the rest will be memories if history is any guide.

  2. Greg, I agree. The cheap, throwaway paperback will be largely or wholly superseded by the e-book. There will always be room for beautifully crafted hardbacks, provided the content makes them worth the premium price.

    What I’m arguing is that the present publishing setup will change. The usual route for a new, quality title now is hardback -> paperback, and the hardback publisher stands to gain from the paperback deal.

    In future the route will be e-book -> ? p-book (perhaps paperback if the market warrants it; perhaps a hardback if people are willing to pay the price; perhaps no p-book at all). The point is that the share of sub. rights enjoyed by today’s hardback publisher will no longer exist, because he hasn’t brought the book to market. All the rights will reside with the author and his/her agent.

    BTW I’m sorry to say it, but Rolls Royce went down the tubes in England and was sold to Volkswagen AG

  3. As a (future) author, and as an avid reader, I’m excited about e-publishing.

    As a reader, I can check out stuff I’ve never heard of before (such as Richard’s work, which I’ve downloaded but not read yet) and not have to worry about paying for something I don’t like.

    As an author, like the article says, I can share my work with the world even if a traditional publisher doesn’t pick it up.

  4. Thanks, David. The power has come back at last — a nasty storm hit southern England last night.

    Yoda47, follow your star! The conventional publishing trade has got just too congested and bureaucratic. Lots of really talented writers give up in despair, unable even to find an agent. E-publishing at least gives the new writer a chance to find an audience, and to get that most priceless commodity, reader feedback.

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