caradocThe Bookseller has a commentary column from Caradoc King, chairman and joint managing director of prestigious literary agency A P Watt. King reflects on the quandaries that the new digital age brings with it, questions for which one would expect such an agency to have ready answers—but that remain pernicious even today.

A number of these questions have to do with the 25% vs. 50% e-book royalty issue on backlist titles—and whether to set up independent e-publishing units for out-of-print books or titles that do not appeal to traditional publishers. Some publishers are refusing to budge on the 25% vs. 50% issue, meaning that the agency will have to make some tough decisions as to how it e-publishes some of the books it is brokering.

King notes that the rapid proliferation of e-titles makes out-of-print publishing “[seem] more a goodwill PR exercise than a business”—there are already so many books available, it is hard to imagine most out-of-print titles will sell more than a handful of copies. However, when publishers and agents cannot agree on e-royalty rates, and as easy as it is to set up a website and e-publish on one’s own, it becomes increasingly likely that there will be more new books launched as agency-published e-books—or even author-standalone sites like Pottermore. King writes:

Overall our view is that digital rights should belong to the same publisher who has the print rights but unless there is swiftly more flexibility and openness about terms and publishers are ready to compete with each other rather than sing the same ‘25% fixed royalty’ song there is a real danger of serious ‘disintermediation’ (the smart word for ‘break-up’) in the publishing sector.

King suggests that the next shock to the industry will come when the e-book launch of the next Harry Potter-style megaseller flounders on publishers unwilling to offer more than 25% royalty rates. It will be interesting to see if he is right.


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