Sunday, January 23, 2011

Unequal rights for digital books

Edit : Une version avancée a été publiée dans un nouveau post

Here is a rough first draft of a translation from an highly ironic open letter five french authors had published in "Le Monde" at the beginning of December last year.
I know that some english speaking people are interested in how the ebooks market is in France, so I attempted a translation.
Far from beeing a professional translator, I have probably made more than a few mistakes, so if anyone (French or English Speaking) spots some and finds corrections, please send them so that I can edit and correct the translation.

I couldn't find good appropriate translation for some parts, for which I put them in Bold, waiting for a correction.

Inéquitables droits du livre numérique (Open Letter published in le Monde 12/01/2010)

Unequal rights for digital books

We often find agreement, dear friend and editor, when discussing literature, but I got to talk here about a grievous issue: money. In France, the subject is taboo and a dirty word except when related to one of Zola's works. I just received your "Contract Amendment" regarding "digital rights". For those who might fall on our exchange (which I'd like to keep confidential), I say that digital rights are those that I get when my book leave  the world of paper to that of screen, and is read on an iPad or a Kindle.

When asked, you answered, reassuring, that this market is embryonic. That's true. But who can predict the future? Look at the world of disc: it gave way in a decade to that, very intangible, of music. In short, you ask me to commit, waiting to see more clearly, and sign the damn amendment where you grant me 10% of the net price of the book, as on paper. I'll have to talk percentage. Forgive me in advance for the vulgarity.

I know the traditional book model, you've once explained it to me: the distribution pockets about 53% of the final price of my book, and you, dear editor, once the printer is paid (around 15%) and my royalties are settled (you grant me an average of 10% per copy sold), you still get a little over 20% to live. So you earn on each of my books twice as much as me, which is justified, I agree (even if you could be more generous), because you make this financial bet that since Diderot justifies the very existence of your profession : you advance "fixed costs", from correction to impression, not to mention the efforts of your press service to promote it to critics.

So, in your "Contract Amendment", you suggest that I keep these same 10% rights on my digitalized book. You are yet freed of the handling, storage and printing costs, and it will leave you 90%, since you sell this "book" at the same prices on the web as in the bookstore (this commercial aberration probably spares for some time booksellers and that's for the better). Certainly, with these 90%, you'll still have to provide some cost. You transform the work to an "eBook" format and you "secure the data" (I'm told that these real costs are ridiculous, think me). You say that you have to pay the "virtual library" (that sometimes is your own subsidiary, little rascal) up to 30% and more, but remember that this percentage can only decrease (it already is often 20 %), since in this "distribution", everything is virtual and competition is fierce. Ultimately, for this book I wrote, you get between six and seven times more than me, right? Please, correct me if I am wrong, I am more literary, alas.

David against Goliath

Ten years ago already, a major French publishing house's CEO said in Le Monde: "Our traditional system creaks at the joints. In a world that is increasingly dematerialized and where 'one to one' is more and more used, the temptation will be great, especially for authors, to change the game's rules. Especially that by which the only get 10% to 15% of rights over a creation that is still theirs, whereas they could get more. " I "passe sur"  this "a creation that is still theirs ", which is more ironic - I'm sure - than unfortunate. I would like to reassure you: "changing the game's rules" is not my immediate intention.

In the United States, William Styron's heirs left the old house Random House, which offered them 25% of the net price (ie 20% of retail price) for a Web editor, Open Road Integrated Media, which offered them 50% . But you know how "ayant droits" sometimes are, indifferent to ancient links. As for us, we are friends, aren't we ? Despite our friendship, I am also afraid, listening to you, that you consider electronic rights to all my previous books as yours, even if we signed together these contracts well before the "web years" and if they do not mention Internet publishing. I do not read either anywhere in my amendment that you planned to renegotiate someday this low percentage, despite technical developments and cost reductions.

Finally, I fear that since a digital book is never "sold out", you won't feel compelled to reprint it anymore , that I won't be able anymore to have the rights back to have it live elsewhere. I can not believe it. Such practices, among friends? I'm like you: I do not know how in the medium term, electronic book trade will organize. I see two options: the reader will download it on the traditional publisher's site, or on that  more generous of a "web publisher", to whom the author will have entrusted his Internet rights (do not read any threat here, it is an academic hypothesis). Or the reader, driven by a portal such as Google, will look for it in an online bookstore, Amazon, Fnac or Google itself. Oddly, the latter hypothesis seems more plausible, because the reader generally knows the book's title or author's name, rarely the publisher.

I wonder, if these "tablets" spread wide, if reading habits changed, I wonder if large booksellers would not consider getting around publishers, considering that they no longer have need of his label. With distribution agreements providing the author with at least 65% (like Apple), rather than editing agreements at 10%, they could take the risk of selling a little less to win more. What do you think? I guess you've thought about it.

In this battle starting between the Goliath of distribution and the David of edition, I know which side I want to be. After his reader, an author's best ally is his publisher (and real bookseller, but such is not the issue here), and publishers have never been in greater need of their authors to validate their work. For if there may be no writer without a publisher, there surely can be no publisher without an author. I know what I owe you, dear friend, I want to be your ally and you also see myself as such. So here's my question: should we humiliate an ally?

Paul Fournel, Cécile Guilbert, Herve Le Tellier, Gerard Mordillat and Gilles Rozier, writers.
Article published in the edition of 02.12.10

Edit : Une version avancée a été publiée dans un nouveau post : 

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