Does Anyone Still Buy Books? Where?

There’s a new Author Earnings report out this month, and for me, that’s a chance to reassess everything you’re doing as a writer, and perhaps, to readjust your plans for the future. It’s hard to obtain reliable information about the publishing business, and every source has flaws, but I believe the information collected by Author Earnings is the most reliable we have, and certainly better than the info from AAP or Bookscan or other sources that don’t track Amazon sales. Granted, that’s tough to do, since Amazon doesn’t release its sales figures. But any accounting that ignores the retailer that sells more than 50% of all books sold in the US, and an even greater percentage of all eBooks, is inherently untrustworthy. Authors Earnings, using its advance computer-bot data-gathering techniques, counts everything.

Here are the three main takeaways from this month’s report:

One: In the five primary English-speaking countries, indie self-published books outsell the Big Five New York publishers.

When you’re doing the math, remember to add the sky blue (indie books) to the cyan (uncategorized, probably self-published). Independent authors are doing better worldwide than most people realize. Also note the increased growth of Amazon’s imprints. Amazon is the fastest growing publisher in the world.

Two: eBooks are still selling, and they sell far better at Amazon than anywhere else.

eBook sales did dip around May of last year, but they rebounded and are slowly growing again. As this chart makes clear, Amazon sells far more books than anyone else, but the other three are not insignificant. Which leads to the third topic…

Three: The answer to whether it’s best to have your books exclusively with Amazon, or to “go wide” (my wife calls this, “playing the field”), is still unclear. Amazon sells more books, and exclusivity does have benefits, the most significant of which is participation in Kindle Unlimited. KU allows members to “borrow” your book at no additional charge. The author gets paid based upon pages actually accessed by the borrower.

The plus is that many will borrow who would not buy. According to Author Earnings, “KindleUnlimited has grown into a Top-3 ebook retail channel in its own right; KU is now paying indie authors twice as many dollars as Barnes & Noble’s Nook is paying to all publishers combined.” That said, you have to wonder how many of those people would’ve bought the book (at full price) if they couldn’t borrow. Even if it’s only a fraction, you might make more in royalties.

And there are always risks in being dependent upon a single market. What if Amazon’s eBook sales dip again, even more precipitously? Or Amazon changes its policies on author compensation? Being visible, and taking advantage of promotions, on a variety of platforms may increase your visibility. It will also increase your ability to get value out of marketing promotions like Bookbub. I have friends who have told me they are getting something like a quarter of their sales from B&N.com or a combo of non-Amazon sites. (Of course, that only comes with active promotion.)

I wish I had a definitive answer here, but I don’t. My recommendation? Experiment, and see what works best for you and your books.

Author Earnings: http://authorearnings.com/report/february-2017

When Do You Get Your Rights Back? Never?

For a law student studying contracts law, this principle is axiomatic: You don’t give away your rights unless you get something of value in return. Sadly, though, writers historically have done that all too often. Because they hunger to be published, preferably by a large corporate publisher, they sign contracts with poor terms and pitifully low royalty rates. In the past, however, they at least knew that if the book went out of print, those publishing rights would revert to them.

Not any more.

When does an eBook go out of print? Never. When does a print book go out of print? If the publisher sets it up for print-on-demand, never. So today, writers face the possibility of granting licenses that will never revert.

The Authors Guild and other organizations have proposed various contract provisions to alleviate this situation, but the sad truth is the Authors Guild has little to no clout. The Big Five publishers are cogs within large corporations and large corporations do not give up anything of value if they can avoid it. Why would they?

Some have advocated contract clauses providing that if a book doesn’t sell a certain number of books, say, 200 copies a year, the rights revert. But a publisher can easily circumvent that. Make the book available online for 99 cents (or less) and it will cross that threshold. Some have advocated clauses providing that if an author doesn’t earn a minimal amount, say, $200 a year, the rights revert. But the publisher can easily circumvent that. Even if the publisher has to pay a small fee to an author, it might be willing to do so to hold onto the rights. Bottom line, I don’t think clauses based on sales or money are the solution.

Here’s what I recommend: whenever possible, limit the term of your licenses to a number of years. License the rights for five years, or ten years, long enough to make it worthwhile for the publisher. But when the term is over, the rights revert, or the publisher may request an extension based upon the same or better terms. Something like this:

The Author grants and assigns the Publisher the following rights (insert rights)The period of this license shall be for five years, at which point, the contract may be renewed on the same or better terms, provided both parties agree.

You may be thinking, no publisher would agree to that. But I’ve gotten it and I know other writers who have as well. If you’re a first-time writer dealing with a Big Five publisher, it may not happen. But you can still ask, or tell your agent to do so. And if you can’t get it, you might think twice about signing that contract. Are you getting enough value to justify giving those rights away forever?

And just so you know, Amazon Publishing traditionally offers contracts with term clauses.